S. Korea’s response to COVID-19 [Part-2]: Privacy Concerns


Miru - APIGA 2019, Committee member of KrIGF, Leader of KIGYS.

Korea’s COVID-19 response method has caused many privacy infringement problems. Among them, personal surveillance issues have become a hot topic.

S. Korea’s response to COVID-19: Privacy Concerns

Korea’s response to COVID-19 [Part-1]: ICT’s role in flattening the curve

WRITTEN BY Jaewon Son - KIGA Committee Member, Youth4IG Outreach Coordinator

Monitoring systems

Korea’s initial response to COVID-19 focused on thorough epidemiological investigations and identifying individual’s movements. During that procedure, the government thoroughly tracked personal location information by using GPS information, credit card usage records, and CCTV. 

Recently, it has also developed a linkage system that reduces the process of identifying movement from 10 hours to 10 minutes. The system links the police system with telecommunication companies and credit card companies, and the system is optimized for monitoring individuals. 

If an efficient system is established to respond to infectious disease, it will be better for society but at the same time safeguard should be in place. This is because even if introduced for legitimate purposes, it can be abused at any time if there is no proper supervision. 

In addition, there is no guarantee that the system will be used only temporarily to respond to infectious diseases. Because the government, police and local government can already identify location information without any restrictions on requirements, and it allows the police to carry it out. As a result, the investigative agencies, including police, can always access location information from telecommunication information.

Base-station investigation

At a time when COVID-19 was in some lull in Korea, there was an incident in which a group infection occurred at a gay club in Itaewon. Due to the nature of gay clubs at the time, many people began to be reluctant to check for infections, fearing they would be found to be homosexual in their daily life, such as work and school because of the period of self-quarantine and checking for infection. 

Then local governments conducted base-station investigations to find people who were in Itaewon at the time. Korea’s social perception of homosexuals in on the negative side, further fueling criticism of the infected and enough to turn the issue of infectious diseases into an “individuals’ carelessness” issue. 

In addition, communication confirmation data of people who were not in the club was viewed because they were also in Itaewon. 

Communication confirmation data includes lots of personal information; the time that the telecommunications commence and end; the communications number of outgoing and incoming call, etc. and the subscriber number of the other party; the frequency of use; the computer communications or Internet log records relating to facts that the users of computer communications or the Internet have used the telecommunications services; the data on tracing a location of information communications apparatus connecting to the information communications networks; the data on tracing a location of connectors capable of confirming the location of information communications apparatus to be used by the users of computer communications or Internet for connecting with the information communications networks. 

So, the base-station investigation should be used only for serious crimes and if there is no other means. However, by using base-station investigation, the local government violated the right to secret communication.

Systematisation and abuse of surveillance systems carried out on the ground of infectious diseases may infringe upon individual freedom and human rights. 

In particular, there has been a growing need to be wary of such a built system not leading to a daily surveillance society.

Personal Information Disclosure of Public Institutions

Korea made it possible to identify certain individuals by revealing the movements of individuals in very detail by using emergency text at the time when COVID-19 was first introduced to Korean society. 

At that time, social criticism of the COVID-19 infected person was high, and with identification of an individual, the problem of being subject to social criticism continued to arise, not only the infected themselves but also the families of the infected person. 

Furthermore, documents containing personal information of individuals owned by public institutions were leaked, exposing personal information, such as documents on movement routes close to personal information, what the person does, and where the workplace is. 

The reason for disclosing the movement of individuals is that if you pass through or stay in the same place as the infected person, and when the government couldn’t figure out each person who related with the infected person, by disclosing information to notify people who might overlap movement with the infected person. 

However, the government has continued to disclose unnecessary movement information despite the fact that it can achieve its intended purpose through CCTVs, credit card usage records, and mobile phone location information. 

As a result, there have been persistent problems raised by Korean civil society organizations and only after the National Human Rights Commission of Korea announced its opinion on the issue could the disclosure of such reckless movements be reduced.

Author BIO



Miru is an alumni of 2019 APIGA, Committee member of KrIGF, Leader of KIGYS, and working civil society, Korean Progressive Network JINBONET

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