Chinese media reports that police in Shenzhen captured a woman selling a list containing the personal information of around 150,000 newborn babies on a busy overpass. What’s worse, the list included the phone numbers of the babies’ parents as well as information on the families’ residences, vehicle registration and other personal details.
Each set of personal family data was being hawked for anywhere between RMB 2 to 8 (and in some cases, even as low as 1 mao), and many area parents had reportedly been receiving “harassing” phone calls from maternity supply, medical and insurance companies.
Shenzhen isn’t the only city where this kind of activity is going on – illicit sales involving lists of personal data is big business across the country (witness the ridiculous amount of SMS spam you receive each day) – but what’s most alarming is that “newborn data lists” are being sold around Beijing as well, something to which I can personally attest.
Shortly after our daughter was born in 2008, my wife also started received numerous calls from “maternity supply, medical and insurance companies” soliciting their goods and services. It was clear that some despicable individual at the Peking Medical Union Hospital had pulled the exact same thing with our records – the calls literally started coming in even before our daughter was born. One morning we received three in a row as we were waiting in the hospital for a pre-natal checkup – it was enough to make me stand up and want to throttle the nearest staff member.
Such calls are usually nothing more than an annoyance and I like to think that nothing more will come of our personal information from that time having been leaked out – but as with all things related to babies and kids, there is something particularly infuriating about this lowdown, dirty practice. And now that we are getting ready to have our second I can guarantee that the calls will resume once we’ve been registered in "the system."
It’s tempting to pin the all blame on the people stealing and selling this information but the root of the problem lies in the unscrupulous hearts of the solicitors who support this black market. Unfortunately Chinese law has not kept up with this growing problem, which doesn’t just affect families with babies, as my father-in-law who frequently receives phone calls hawking pacemakers and blood thinner can attest.
Laws covering the processing of personal data are filled with ambiguities and the government has only just begun the process of drafting legislation. But even if such laws are passed in the relatively near future there’s still the age-old problem of enforceability and accountability. If authorities are serious about tackling the issue then a system of tangible rules and punishments should be established and consistently enforced, but all too often this is simply not the case – it seems that only after an embarrassing debacle or, much worse, a crisis or tragedy occurs, do real efforts get underway. Let’s hope this won’t turn out to be the case for the children and families involved in this case.