An interview with Simmons & Simmons discussing privacy & cybersecurity in CHong Kong – Lexology

Lexology GTDT Market Intelligence provides a unique perspective on evolving legal and regulatory landscapes. This interview is taken from the Privacy & Cybersecurity volume discussing topics including government initiatives, M&A risks and cloud computing within key jurisdictions worldwide.


1 What were the key regulatory developments in your jurisdiction over the past year concerning cybersecurity standards?

Hong Kong doesn’t have a dedicated cybersecurity statute or mandated cybersecurity standards. However, there are a variety of sector-specific requirements for regulated businesses and cybersecurity continues to be an area of intense focus for financial regulators such as the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) and Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA).

For example, at the start of 2021, the HKMA implemented an upgraded Cybersecurity Fortification Initiative (CFI 2.0). The original CFI regime was launched in 2016, and CFI 2.0 is a result of the HKMA’s recognition that cybersecurity is a rapidly evolving landscape. The CFI contains enhanced expectations of attack simulation testing, cyberattack readiness and cyber resilience controls. This is a continuation of the HKMA’s long-held focus on protecting customer data, which continues to be a major area of focus as banks increasingly become more digital.

The SFC has also been working to bolster its cybersecurity expectations. In the past 12 months, it has issued a thematic cybersecurity review of internet brokerages, which indicate the SFC’s continuing concerns that mobile applications and other digital interfaces are more vulnerable to hacking risks and security breaches than traditional forms of interfacing with clients. The SFC has called out encryption, user access management and tracking of data access as particular areas of focus (and this is also consistent with the focus of parts of the SFC’s introduction of more stringent cloud storage requirements over the past couple of years). More recently, the SFC has also used further guidance on managing the cybersecurity risks of remote working.

In terms of legal changes, the last major change occurred in 2019. Hong Kong has traditionally leveraged section 161 of the Crimes Ordinance to tackle cybercrime. Section 161 of the Crimes Ordinance deals with access to a computer with a criminal or dishonest intent, for example, with intent to commit an offence, with a dishonest intent to deceive, with a view to dishonest gain, or with a dishonest intent to cause loss to another.

Section 161 – typically understood as a hacking offence – has been used in Hong Kong over the years as a ‘catch-all’ offence for all manner of crimes committed using computer devices, including things like ‘upskirting’ (taking sexually intrusive photos of an individual without permission). This changed in 2019 when a Court of Final Appeal judgment (Secretary for Justice v. Cheng Ka Yee) confirmed that section 161 does not apply to a person’s use of his or her own computer. This judgment has redefined section 161 as a provision aimed at tackling cybercrime. It remains the only per se cybercrime statutory provision in Hong Kong.

Finally, we are expecting to see an amendment to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance in Hong Kong aimed at preventing a type of cyber offence known as ‘doxxing’, which is the publishing of personal data without consent with malicious intent. That is expected to come into place this year, and has particular implications for insider threats and ‘stray employee’ cybersecurity risks, and for companies that allow user-generated content like social media platforms. Companies (and in particular those in the TMT sector) should be looking at bolstering external policies on platform use and internal policies on the handling of personal data.

2 When do data breaches require notice to regulators or consumers, and what are the key factors that organisations must assess when deciding whether to notify regulators or consumers?

There is no general mandatory data breach reporting regime in Hong Kong. While reporting of data breaches is encouraged by the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner, as a matter of practice, we see clients take a range of approaches to voluntary reporting (whether that is reporting to the regulator or affected consumers). Usually the things that clients weigh up include whether the data breach might have to be reported on a mandatory basis in another jurisdiction (in which case, clients tend to lean to voluntary reporting in other affected jurisdictions); the size of the data breach; and the risk of harm to affected individuals. Factors such as negative public perception and financial consequences are also important considerations.

That said, since the start of 2020, the Hong Kong government has been discussing a range of changes to the Hong Kong privacy law, including introducing a mandatory data breach notification regime. While we are yet to see legislative progress regarding a mandatory data breach notification regime, we expect this to stay high on the agenda in Hong Kong and that it will become law in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, for regulated businesses – and in particular, those businesses that are subject to the supervision of financial regulators – there continue to be sector-specific regulatory expectations to report data incidents within certain time frames.

3 What are the biggest issues that companies must address from a privacy perspective when they suffer a data security incident?

The biggest issues that companies need to consider from a privacy perspective arise even before companies suffer a data security incident.

First of all, data security (and privacy protection in particular) should be board-level issues. Too often, they are considered the sole domain of certain stakeholders (the CISO, a data protection officer or another ‘tech’ or ‘legal’ person) – so the first issue that companies need to address from a privacy perspective is an understanding that this is an enterprise-wide responsibility.

Dealing well with a data security incident starts from prevention in the first place, followed by good preparation for the worst-case scenario. The companies that do this best have a multi-disciplinary team (stakeholders from senior management through to lawyers, public and government relations experts, cyber-forensics professionals) that have been trained and drilled for cyber incident simulations so that they can mobilise quickly to respond to a data security incident when it (inevitably) occurs. Those companies know what steps they need to take and the order in which they need to take those steps – from initial containment of a data breach, through to ensuring key evidence is collected in a way that maintains chain-of-custody (particularly important so that digital evidence is not accidentally erased or changed in an effort to fix a breach), through to taking measures to fix vulnerabilities and post-mortem reviews. All of that will be important if a company is required to report an incident to a specific regulator (for example, the HKMA) or if the company decides it wants to voluntarily report the incident to the Privacy Commissioner or affected customers.

4 What best practices are organisations within your jurisdiction following to improve cybersecurity preparedness?

There are a range of approaches in Hong Kong to cybersecurity preparedness. Banks are among those that have the highest level of regulatory expectations when it comes to cybersecurity preparedness and cyber resilience. In terms of best practice, regulated banks in Hong Kong must meet a minimum baseline of cybersecurity readiness, which is set out in the HKMA’s Cybersecurity Fortification Initiative. This comprises three pillars – the Cyber Resilience Assessment Framework, which helps banks assess their cyber risk posture and benchmark their level of defence and resilience; the Professional Development Programme, which is a certification scheme for cybersecurity practitioners in the industry to boost technical capability in areas such as attack simulation testing; and the Cyber Intelligence Sharing Platform, which is aimed at sharing cyberthreat intelligence to help the industry stay informed of, and prepare for, emerging hacking tactics and patterns.

This is consistent with common cybersecurity wisdom that cybersecurity is a patchwork of defences in an organisation’s people, process and technology.

Other sectors take a range of approaches to cybersecurity preparedness and there remains a broad spectrum of cybersecurity maturity levels in Hong Kong.

5 Are there special data security and privacy concerns that businesses should consider when thinking about moving data to a cloud hosting environment?

Yes – in particular organisations that are supervised by the SFC in Hong Kong should be particularly aware of additional requirements imposed by the SFC on the use of external electronic data storage services (like cloud hosting services) to store their data and records. The SFC issued a Circular in late 2019, and more recently this year a set of accompanying FAQs, that set out certain requirements for licensed corporations wishing to move their data storage to a cloud hosted environment. Some of the requirements and expectations set out in this regime impose sector-specific requirements which are unusual both in the context of cloud service agreements in a broader sector-agnostic context as well as in comparison to expectations in the same sector in other jurisdictions, including, for example, a requirement to maintain a full and immutable audit trail to memorialise access logs by every unique user of a data record.

Outside of these requirements of the SFC, there are of course all the usual requirements that businesses should consider when thinking about moving data to an environment hosted by a third party – including due diligence to ensure the relevant cloud product is fit for the intended purpose, that the vendor is certified against prevailing industry cybersecurity standards, that the vendor can meet required data availability and uptime commitments and that there is a certain level of redundancy and disaster recovery to protect data loss. In addition, cross-border data transfer restrictions are becoming more complex for projects for moving to a cloud hosted environment touching on multiple jurisdictions. Finally, increasingly, concerns about increased exposure to excessive government or regulatory access to cloud hosted data (and in some cases, conflict of law issues) are becoming a top consideration when looking to move data to the cloud.

6 How is the government in your jurisdiction addressing serious cybersecurity threats and criminal activity?

A specialist unit within the Hong Kong Police – the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau – is responsible for investigating and handling technology crime, computer examinations and preventing technology crime.

In addition, we expect that by the end of 2021, the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner will have a raft of new powers to investigate and prosecute doxxing crimes.

7 When companies contemplate M&A deals, how should they factor risks arising from privacy and data security issues into their decisions?

All companies should be doing an appropriate level of privacy and data security diligence when looking at a potential acquisition or merger target. This involves diligence from a legal perspective (eg, whether there have been any recent mandatory or voluntary data breaches notified to regulators, whether there have been any near misses, whether there have been any data handling complaints or litigation that may indicate a systemic issue), as well as from a technical perspective (eg, bringing in cybersecurity professionals to assess a potential target’s cybersecurity posture). This is particularly important for companies that engage in businesses that are data-intensive, businesses that interface directly with consumers or businesses that are subject to particularly strict privacy laws in other jurisdictions. A history of multiple or serious non-compliances with the applicable data law, spotted during the due diligence process, may affect the value, terms or indeed continuation of the deal. These risks should also factor into decisions about M&A deal shapes and ways in which sellers may be required to remain financially responsible or accept more onerous terms for latent privacy and data security issues.


The Inside Track

When choosing a lawyer to help with cybersecurity, what are the key attributes clients should look for?

Excellent knowledge of the law is a given. In addition, clients should be looking for curious lawyers who want to know about your specific business and your specific cyber issues. You’ll get a good sense of this from the number and quality of questions a lawyer asks you in your first meeting – the more questions they ask about your business and your specific cybersecurity situation, the better!

Clients should also look for lawyers with an in-depth understanding of technology, computers and cybersecurity as a discipline (ie, knowledge beyond the strictly legal) – there are very few true technology lawyers in Hong Kong. You also want someone with a good team of litigator colleagues working alongside them to cover tricky dealings with customers or regulators. Finally, it’s important to look for a team with a good working knowledge of data law across multiple jurisdictions, as issues are often cross-border and require excellent coordination across different geographies.

What issues in your jurisdiction make advising on cybersecurity and privacy complex or interesting?

The fact that Hong Kong data law has been around for so long (since 1995!) and remains relatively unchanged today is a very interesting contrast to the pace of change in data regulation in other parts of the world – this is particularly the case because so many multinational companies have their Asia headquarters in Hong Kong, so the interplay in practice between different laws can become very complex and interesting, as we know data itself often lives in more than one location in today’s cloud-reliant business environment. We’re also seeing trends in government access to data from all over the world, including Hong Kong, which can make for interesting conflict of laws questions for lawyers.

How is the privacy landscape changing in your jurisdiction?

Hong Kong’s data and privacy laws definitely win the prize for longevity! They are due for a change (although I’m constantly amazed at the resilience of the PDPO and how well a law drafted in 1995 still holds up and adapts so well to so many novel practical situations in 2021). And as of 2020, we are finally seeing the beginnings of an earnest review of important areas for reform. With the recent proposals for amendments to the PDPO (eg, anti-doxxing, compulsory data breach notification), as well as the imperative for Hong Kong to become even more connected with other major cities in the Greater Bay Area, I expect the privacy landscape in Hong Kong to become a lot more dynamic in the next few years.

What types of cybersecurity incidents should companies be particularly aware of in your jurisdiction?

Hong Kong companies are no different from many other jurisdictions in terms of vulnerabilities to different types of cybersecurity incidents. In Hong Kong, like most places, phishing still remains one of the top tactics for bad actors to infiltrate systems. Threat actors are becoming more sophisticated and more patient and will wait longer to execute large-scale attacks, such as targeted emails to senior executives to trick them into transferring large sums of company money disguised as legitimate transactions. Effective and consistent staff training and vigilance remains one of the most important defences against phishing-based cybersecurity events.