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Asia’s Family Values Give Way to Data Privacy Concerns

FILE - A blogger who doesn't want to be identified, poses for photos in Hanoi, Vietnam.

There’s a saying in South Korea: Your neighbor knows how many spoons and knives you have.

The expression dates back to the days when Koreans lived in closer proximity and knew all their neighbors’ business. But today, data privacy experts say a cultural shift is under way, as Koreans and their peers across Asia become increasingly concerned about how their personal information is shared.

Responding to these worries, leaders in Seoul have discussed regulations that could make it easier for citizens to take unwanted details offline.

“The Korean people are very sensitive to that,” said Jongsoo Yoon, former commissioner of Korea’s Personal Information Protection Commission.

Family vs Individual

Technology has made privacy a global challenge, from Edward Snowden’s revelation that the U.S. government collected people’s phone records, to the Ashley Madison cyber attack that leaked the accounts of people cheating on their spouses.

But for Asia, the growing interest in individual privacy is an especially stark departure from centuries-old traditions, including large family networks and communal responsibility. Many people grew up in three-generation homes, where privacy was impossible.

In the past, it was common for organizations in Japan to sell user data, according to Atsushi Igarashi, a partner at law firm TMI Associates. For example, a train operator could sell information to advertisers who want to know the demographics of customers who travel at certain times and to certain locations. But Igarashi said media reported such cases as privacy infringement, adding to debates about how much personal information should be traded.

Japan’s Act on the Protection of Personal Information took full effect in 2005. “After the law, many Japanese people are concerned about their privacy,” Igarashi said.

Data Privacy in Europe vs U.S.

It is unclear whether Asia’s evolving privacy laws will follow the European or U.S. approach.

“There’s a strong sentiment among a great portion of the population of the U.S. that the less government intervention there is, the better,” said Francoise Gilbert, general counsel at the Cloud Security Alliance.

In Europe, by contrast, governments are more likely to favor individual privacy over companies’ use of their data. The attitude, Gilbert said, is, “People have a right, and they have to be protected.”

Who is Responsible for Protection?

She also said the societal shift in Asia may be not just cultural but generational as well. Younger Asians are more likely to travel, thus picking up social norms in other countries, such as the emphasis on the individual. They’re also more tech-savvy, so they hear about nude celebrity photos going viral, or hackers who used computers to shut down a Chrysler jeep from miles away. That increases their concern with personal privacy.

“An 85-year-old is not going to think the same way as a younger person,” Gilbert said.

But others wonder if the opposite could be true, that a group’s preoccupation with the internet could make it more willing to give up some privacy rights.

Rose Marie King-Dominguez, a partner at law firm SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan, said people in her country, the Philippines, have a “large appetite” for social media. She cited a court case in which a high school was allowed to fail a student after she posted semi-nude images on Facebook. The judge rejected the girl’s argument that her privacy had been violated, suggesting individuals are responsible for guarding their personal information.

“I don’t know that Filipinos stand to put so much value on [privacy] as they might say,” King-Dominguez said.

Commercial Use of Data

In other parts of Asia, data protections lose the battle against commercial interests. Companies want to tap into big data, which can help them target advertising, and governments want to attract investors.

A Hong Kong lawyer said her city retains a pro-business environment, despite having an active data regulator.

“In Hong Kong, there tends to still be a lack of respect for privacy,” said Charmaine Koo, a partner at Deacons.