Editorial

Is privacy being sacrificed by the South Korean government for epidemiological gains?

The search habits of thousands of South Korean senior citizens being monitored by voice-enabled “smart” speakers, an experimental remote care service “increasingly needed” because of the Pandemic, Associated Press reports

Posted 1 June 2020 by Gary Flood


The search habits of thousands of South Korean senior citizens are being monitored by voice-enabled “smart” speakers, an experimental remote care service local telco SK Telecom says is increasingly needed during the COVID crisis. 

In a special report by Associated Press, the company’s employees are depicted as closely monitor for signs of danger, e.g. whether they are more frequently using search words that indicate rising states of loneliness or insecurity: trigger words lead to a recommendation for a visit by public health officials.

Around 3,200 people across the country, mostly older than 70 and living alone, have so far allowed the SK Telecom speakers to listen to them 24 hours a day since the service launched in April 2019.

The company expects users to at least double by the end of the year.

‘Computer Repair’ by Hoam al-Ani on Flickr

The application of AI (Artificial Intelligence) to combat the Pandemic is also being supported by Seoul’s insistence that businesses should be able to access vast amounts of personal information and to ease restrictions holding back telemedicine, the story adds.

The drive, resisted for years by civil liberty advocates and medical professionals, has been reinvigorated by a technology-driven fight against COVID-19, says AP.

It has so far allowed South Korea to emerge as something of a coronavirus success story but also raised “broader worries that privacy is being sacrificed for epidemiological gains”.

“Armed with an infectious disease law that was strengthened after a 2015 outbreak of a different coronavirus, MERS, health authorities have aggressively used credit-card records, surveillance videos and cellphone data to find and isolate potential virus carriers,” we are told.

Locations where patients went before they were diagnosed are published on websites and released through cellphone alerts, while smartphone tracking apps are used to monitor around 30,000 individuals quarantined at home. And from today, entertainment venues in Seoul, Incheon and Daejeon will be required to register customers with smartphone QR codes so they can be easily located if needed. 

But, says AP, “The past months have exposed a stark division about the best ways to make important decisions when privacy concerns collide with public health needs.”

Officials are preparing regulations for revised data laws that lawmakers passed in January after months of wrangling. They aim to allow businesses greater freedom in collecting and analyzing anonymous personal data without seeking individual consent. 

“If they work as intended, optimists say the laws would allow artificial intelligence to truly take off and pave the way for highly customised financial and health care services,” the story concludes, but noting widespread local unease over privacy concerns – quoting one activist raising fears that the changes could bring excessive privacy infringements unless robust safeguards are installed, as “companies will always have an endless thirst for data”.