A British citizen and his Chinese-American wife were convicted and sentenced to prison terms in Shanghai on Friday on charges of illegally obtaining private information of Chinese citizens. It is the first time that foreigners have been prosecuted for conducting an illegal investigation.
Peter Humphrey, 58, and his wife Yu Yingzeng, 61, were accused of being entrusted by Chinese and foreign clients to obtain background information from April 2009 to July 2013 through a consulting firm registered in Shanghai.
Humphrey was sentenced to two years and six months with a fine of 200,000 yuan (S$40,682), and he will be deported after serving the jail term. His wife was given two years and fined 150,000 yuan.
The couple have five days to appeal against the verdict.
The hearing at Shanghai First Intermediate People's Court began at 9:30 am and lasted until the nighttime. The proceedings were broadcast on text and on the court's micro blog.
The two defendants confessed to the charges in court and apologised, saying they regretted their actions.
Ruan Chuansheng, a Shanghai lawyer who specializes in criminal cases, said, "The Humphrey case has grabbed so much attention because it involves foreigners. But similar cases of violation of private information have been relatively common since the charge was introduced in 2009." In Shanghai alone, there were nearly 100 such cases in the past two years.
Ruan said Friday's trial was "normal and fair" and the defendants were allowed to testify in English.
Prosecutors say the couple bought 256 items of private information, including citizens' household registration data, entry-and-exit records and cellphone records, from three sources - Liu Hong, Cai Zhicheng and Zhou Hong-bo - who are facing separate investigations.
The couple paid between 800 and 2,000 yuan for each item and then sold the information in their investigation reports to clients, according to the prosecution.Yu confessed during the hearing that more than 90 per cent of the information obtained concerned identity and residency and that they charged clients between 20,000 and 200,000 yuan for individual reports. About 700 reports had been produced for clients since their company was established in 2004.
Yu said: "We did not know that obtaining these items of information was illegal in China. ... I have lived abroad for a very long time and my US phone number and address can be found in the Yellow Pages. It is very easy in the US to find such information."
Zhou said in evidence that Humphrey paid thousands and sometimes more than 10,000 yuan for the investigation of a target, which normally lasted between two weeks and a month.
According to Ruan, the Shanghai lawyer, there are various definitions of violation of privacy in different countries, but in China such behaviour is undoubtedly a criminal offence.
Liu Xianquan, dean of the Law School at East China University of Political Science and Law, said the amount of information obtained by Humphrey might not have been large, but it was a serious invasion of privacy and was used for commercial purposes. Therefore, the behaviour constituted a criminal offence.
Liu said authorities need to clarify details on the charge of illegally obtaining private information, such as the definition of personal information and the degree of severity involved. But as violation of private information has become a more serious issue in recent years, he suggested the government adopt tougher penalties for such behaviour.
"It would be a declaration to the world that the country is intensifying the protection of privacy," he said. "This is not only for the protection of Chinese citizens, but foreigners and foreign companies in China."
Li Yang contributed to this story.