In the face of COVID-19, countries are responding in various ways depending on their situation. Some, such as Taiwan, have responded quickly by blocking entry from other countries in the early stages, while others, such as Brazil, are taking a rather complacent response by underestimating the seriousness of COVID-19. Still others, such as Sweden, have implemented policies intended to achieve herd immunity. Although there are differences in degree, many countries have locked down for some period of time and are using surveillance technology for contact tracing. Some even use violent measures to enforce social distancing.
Tensions have been rising recently as the number of confirmed cases is again increasing, but South Korea’s fight against COVID-19 is considered a success. Various factors have been cited as contributing to this success, including thorough contact tracing, prompt and active diagnostic tests, transparent disclosure of COVID-19-related information including information on the movements of confirmed cases, safe and effective tests such as drive-throughs, and social distancing campaigns and voluntary cooperation among citizens. Encouraged by this international assessment, the South Korean government is pushing for international standardization of South Korea’s response to COVID-19. The Korean model includes three steps—a) testing and confirmation, b) tracing, and c) treatment and quarantine—or 3T (Test-Trace-Treat).
South Korea’s response to COVID-19 is worth studying in depth. Although technology enabling the collection and monitoring of personal information is used in other countries, such as the use of contact tracking apps and location information, South Korea is a rare case where such technology is extensively used and where such usage is considered effective in the fight against COVID-19. Of course, some are critical of the use of these surveillance technologies. At an online press briefing on the COVID-19 Contact Tracing Support System hosted by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, questions poured in on how to deal with the risk of privacy infringement caused by abuse of the system.
Various aspects must be considered to achieve a fair evaluation of South Korea’s response to COVID-19, or that of other countries. Regarding the use of surveillance technology, for example, it is necessary to verify based on objective data whether the technology usage was executed in a proportional manner, how effective it actually was, and whether voluntary measures were insufficient compared to compulsory measures. We should also consider that basic rights would have been infringed upon if a region was quarantined rather than simply monitored by contact tracing, as well. Furthermore, it is not a simple matter to assess whether a response is “successful.” Infectious disease response policy should not only consider the health and medical aspects. For example, restricting mobility and implementing quarantine could pose threats to the livelihood of individuals. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss the level of confirmed cases that a society’s medical system can handle while also maintaining basic standards of economic and social life and minimizing infringement of basic rights, rather than pursuing unconditional minimization of confirmed cases and deaths. The criteria for “success” will depend on this.
Even if South Korea maintains its current model of response to COVID-19, such assessments and discussions are necessary. The current model is not perfect. The Moon Jae-in administration’s rapid response to COVID-19 was likely impacted by the knowledge that former President Park Geun-hye’s ratings fell due to her administration’s poor response to MERS. Moreover, the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act was amended before and after the MERS outbreak, creating a legal basis for the response to COVID-19 and eliminating possible debate over the legality of coercive measures on some level. Just as the policy of disclosing the movements of confirmed cases has been continuously upgraded in the course of the response to COVID-19, it is necessary to upgrade the current response to COVID-19 itself through continuous evaluation. COVID-19 won’t be the last infectious disease we’ll face.
Violating Personal Privacy and Excessive Monitoring via Preventative Measures
The United Nations Secretary General’s report “COVID-19 and Human Rights,” published in April 2020, declared that states must “ensure that any emergency measures, including states of emergency, are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory, have a specific focus and duration, and take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health.” South Korea’s COVID-19 response should also be evaluated using these standards of human rights.
The most debated issue in the South Korean response to COVID-19 was the policy of disclosing the movements of confirmed cases. Local governments disclose this information on their webpages. During the process, excessive personal information was exposed, resulting in some confirmed patients becoming the target of criticism and hatred on the internet. For instance, one confirmed patient’s wife and children tested negative, but his sister-in-law tested positive, raising suspicions of cheating without evidence. A confirmed patient that visited a lot of places became a target of criticism as if the patient spread the virus on purpose. Sexual minorities are scared that they might be identified regardless of the intention of information disclosure and become targets of hatred when information on their movements is disclosed. According to a public opinion poll, people stated that they are more frightened of disclosing information on their movements than contracting COVID-19. Such contact tracing does not help preventive measures. Because disclosed information exposes confirmed patients to criticism and hate comments, people will try to hide where they have been.
However, when you think about the objective of disclosing information on patient movements, doing so for every confirmed patient is unnecessary. When a case is confirmed, those who contacted the patient are sought for public health surveillance. But, there might be some cases where it is hard to confirm whether an individual crossed paths with the confirmed patient at the same place and time. For example, whether a customer was at the same restaurant as a confirmed patient at a similar time. Disclosing information on patient movement is necessary in this case so that the individuals who were in the same place at the same time, who the state cannot trace, can prepare themselves. If all contacted individuals can be traced, there is no need to disclose the confirmed patient’s movements. Instead of releasing the individual movements of each confirmed patient, an aggregated list that includes the time and place of the whereabouts of all confirmed patients should serve the same purpose. This would enable others to check whether they were at the same place at the same time. The National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency recommended not disclosing individuals’ movements, but to instead disclose information in a location-list type with region, place type, business name, and specific address. Despite this advice, local governments continue to release each individual confirmed patient’s movements, and the central government is not monitoring the situation. How can we make sense of this?
The Excessive Collection and Preservation of Private Information
The Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act allows for the collection of private information of confirmed patients—such as medical condition, records of entry into and departure from the country, credit card and transit card usage, CCTV video footage, and cell phone location information—if health authorities deem it necessary. This is very sensitive personal information, necessitating a warrant even for investigative institutions. However, for the purpose of infectious disease prevention, it is easy to collect such information, requiring only a request from the health authorities and the head of the local government.
It is also possible to collect information on possible confirmed cases of infectious diseases, rather than confirmed cases alone. However, possible cases include not only those that came into contact with confirmed cases but also those that “probably came in contact,” so there is a risk of the target population being arbitrarily expanded. For example, in early May, when there was a confirmed case at a club at Itaewon, Seoul city requested a list of people who were near the club from wireless carriers; the resulting list exceeded 10,000 individuals. However, it is excessive to consider more than 10,000 as possible cases. Also, even though the confirmed patient visited the club at the crack of dawn on May 2, personal information collection on those that visited the area started from a week before, April 24, a meaningless and excessive time frame in terms of contact tracing needs.
How long the collected private information is stored is also ambiguous. In a a press release on the “Support System of COVID-19 Public Health Surveillance,” the government revealed that “this system is operating on a temporary basis considering we are in the crisis management stage of this infectious disease, and private information is scheduled to be destroyed immediately when the COVID-19 situation ends.” However, the Jinbo Network Center (Korean Progressive Network) received a different answer from the Korean Disease Control Prevention Agency on the storage of gathered information. Information on confirmed patients and quarantined individuals was not destroyed after the MERS outbreak, and was said to be semi-permanently preserved. They also said that the criteria for determining the “end of the COVID-19 situation” have not yet been decided.
How can Democracy Coexist with Infectious Disease Management?
There should be careful analysis on why infectious disease response systems based on contact tracing and monitoring, such as that in South Korea, are not widely adopted in democratic countries. With a drastic increase in confirmed cases, quarantining a certain region may be more effective compared to responses based on public health surveillance of individual cases. Moreover, a legal basis is required to adopt measures that may limit basic human rights, but other countries might not have had the room to introduce such hotly-debated policies in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, unlike in South Korea, where the necessary legalization was established after MERS. One notable point is that South Korea is equipped with the physical conditions required to easily trace individuals’ whereabouts over two-week periods. South Koreans use credit cards more than cash, individuals use a nation-wide public transportation system that uses electronic cards for payment, and CCTV cameras are common. Currently, this information is gathered for public purposes, but this also means that it is possible to trace individuals’ whereabouts for other purposes.
The current administration might have less desire to abuse power compared to past dictators, but its actual capacity and power to influence the everyday lives of citizens have become stronger. We need more democratic checks than in the past. First, there is a need to reform the current social system, which operates far from the principle of protecting private information. The resident registration number system that continues to be used for a multitude of purposes, the real-name mobile phone system that can trace individuals’ every move, and the identity verification system that makes personal identification possible on the internet through resident registration numbers are the basis of a monitoring system that infringes on privacy.
In the process of responding to infectious diseases, there should be improvement based on the principles of human rights and democracy. There is a need for a new system to monitor the collection and management of personal information, where the current system depends solely on the arbitrary judgement of the administration. The Personal Information Protection Commission that formed on August 5 this year should play this role together with the National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea. The Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act should be amended to reflect principles protecting private information. De facto enforcement measures that are without a legal basis such as electronic tagging to monitor the self-quarantined should not be implemented. Evaluating whether a country’s preventive measures were successful should consider the basis of the measures in democracy and human rights, as well as how effective the response was in mitigating or eliminating the infectious disease.
Author: Byoung-il Oh(Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet)