TAIPEI (AP) — Taiwan plans to create an independent agency to enforce digital privacy, a Cabinet minister says, tackling an increasingly urgent issue as countries step up surveillance during the pandemic.
Taiwan is one of Asia’s most robust democracies and has been praised for its outbreak response, which has kept its death toll at seven. But privacy advocates object to measures used to track the public and say there are too few safeguards for personal information.
The proposed council, if approved by lawmakers, would have the power to enforce privacy rules, Audrey Tang, who is in charge of open government initiatives and social innovation, told The Associated Press in an interview.
President Tsai Ing-wen said creating such a body would be a priority following her re-election in January. The opposition Nationalist Party made a similar proposal to the legislature this month.
The agency “will truly be independent,” reporting directly to the head of Tsai’s Cabinet, Tang said Thursday.
Other governments including China and South Korea track the public with smartphone apps, credit cards and other technology. In Europe, governments have faced strong public resistance to tracking apps due to privacy concerns.
The United States is wrestling with how to enforce data privacy following thefts from corporate and government databases. The Trump administration is pressing the Chinese owner of video service TikTok to sell its U.S. unit and is trying to bar messaging service WeChat from the country on the grounds that they might gather too much personal data about Americans.
In Taiwan, authorities use a system dubbed an “electric fence” based on cell phone location data to track people who are supposed to be quarantined. It alerts police if the person’s phone leaves a designated area.
Taiwan is one of the world’s most digitally connected societies with an internet penetration rate of around 82 percent, according to a government survey in 2017. The global penetration rate for internet usage was 53.6 percent in 2019, according to the U.N. International Telecommunication Union.
Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center was given expanded powers to take “necessary response measures” under legislation enacted in April.
Privacy activists expressed concern about merging of databases to give the epidemic agency information including about immigration. They said there should be limits on how data could be used or how long it would be held.
“The criticism is valid,” Tang said. However, she said the government has set up no new data collection and instead relied on databases such as health insurance cards and a disaster warning system that already were in place.
Tang said Taiwan’s lack of a central agency to enforce digital privacy prevents it from qualifying for the top level of information sharing with the European Union under the 27-nation trade bloc’s stringent data protection rules.
Taiwan’s approach was “a balance between collectivism and individualism,” Tang said.
“The most we can do during that fight of a pandemic is not to make the norm even more destructive for privacy purposes,” she said.
Tang was an entrepreneur and activist for open government before joining Tsai’s Cabinet.
In a Twitter message to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in November, Tang said, “Governments around the world can start with one simple principle: trust the citizens more.”