Longevity After The Necessity: The Need For Human Rights Protections During Contact Tracing In South Korea

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H Plus Yangji Hospital in Seoul, South Korea (Photo By SeongJoon Cho Via: Bloomberg)

Throughout history, there are moments in time that require extreme and unprecedented actions to combat them. These moments alter society’s current and past understanding and shift the path of human progress in a new direction. Moments such as these are often born from countries’ desperate attempts to survive natural disasters and national emergencies. Adapting to meet survival needs in the face of their time’s perils, these actions and methods of “survival” are foundationally shattering and societally changing to the involved countries.

In today’s reality, the world finds itself facing one of these said societally altering emergencies in the form of the COVID-19 virus. Spreading worldwide and earning the classification of a pandemic, each country’s plans of suppression, containment, and eradication of the virus have had varying levels of success. While the necessity of these reactions are built on the substantial merit of validation, hastily and unchecked establishments have created unintended precedents for future laws. These create lasting effects with an unmeasurable scope. If regulations and precautions are not made in line with these emergency measures, we can see a stripping away of people’s rights and liberties. 

Each country’s methods highlight its stance on the dichotomy between protecting and encouraging its citizens’ individual rights and the government’s ability to act against the emerging threat. On one side of the spectrum, we have countries like the United States, which chose to have very little federal enforcement or action. Their choice of inaction did not directly change the level of human rights in the country. However, it left the pandemic to run rampant, creating economic, health, and security problems. On the other side, we have countries like The Republic of China, which chose to take a robust totalitarian implantation strategy by locking down whole cities and apartment buildings and forcing incarceration. While their actions sparked intense debate and international contempt regarding human rights violations across the board, their intense actions could effectively contain the virus, creating economic stabilization and a faster return to normalcy. However, neither country should be praised for its choices in handling the emergency of the pandemic. One did nothing to help in the name of rights, and the other acted while disregarding rights.

Within this global variety of implementation strategies, the need for a plan that sits between the two sides of the spectrum becomes evident. Along this line, we find a country like South Korea. Being internationally hailed as one of the fastest, most robust, and most effective countries, South Korea’s implementation of contact tracing has been instrumental. South Korea’s actions have also avoided overly critical opposition on the world stage. 

However, Korea’s use and implementation of contact tracing without strong protection measures of individual rights to privacy and security still warrant a discussion. It is essential to look at the possible lasting effects and changes these strategies can create for individual privacy and security farther down the line. 

South Korea’s Contact Tracing Methods and Implementation

Contact tracing is a method of containment based on identifying the infected persons and following their footsteps backward to help identify all the people they would have come into contact with. This method relies on the heavy surveillance of its citizens. Every level of South Korea’s response to COVID-19 utilizes contact tracing. To accomplish this, mandatory sign-in sheets requiring names, phone numbers, and home locations at all public and private establishments are required. QR scans connected to visitors’ phone numbers are also collected, tethering people to all areas they visit. In South Korea, phone numbers are an intense form of identification that can be traced back to messenger apps, bank accounts, school enrollment, living areas, and individual resident cards. Sign-in sheets at each location vary in appearance, and requirements regarding the necessary information depend on the establishment. But, many of these establishments have made little effort to hide or conceal others’ data. Doing so has made it very easy to access others’ private information.

The government further strengthens this tracking by utilizing its vast CCTV network, monitoring a large percentage of the country’s credit card transactions. With this type of tracking, the government actively allows the public to access information regarding the itinerary of infected persons’ locations. This possible oversight or perceived lack of concern for protecting the people’s rights can increase the risk of access to people’s information that can be utilized for defamation, attacks, blackmail, and an overall violation of individual privacy.

The success and effectiveness of contact tracing to combat the spread of COVID-19 are difficult to deny. However, regardless of effectiveness, criticism of the South Korean government based on individual human rights to privacy and personal security is well warranted and essential to consider. The Korean government’s implementation of these requirements could be seen as lacking adequate protection measures for individual information and privacy, and approaching these government actions from this critical perspective is vital because rights should not be easily infringed upon or easily reduced purely based on faith in governmental bodies. 

There is also an argument that there is no clear distinction in how the government will utilize this personal information, who they will distribute it to, and how non-governmental entities should handle people’s data. There could also be a call for the need for more substantial and binding deadlines on how long the government can continue to mandate access to this information and how long they can hold on to that data.

Some might say that this is being overly critical of a method that has proved effective and that it is harmful to discuss the possible adverse side effects. However, we have already seen examples of these adverse effects being produced in real time. An example of this is Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul located near the US military bases. Known for its international cuisine and nightlife, it also holds a large percentage of Korea’s gay clubs and drag shows. When an outbreak occurred in Itaewon, many were quick to scapegoat the virus spread on the LGBTQIA+ community and a single district. By doing so, with the release of private information used for contact tracing, anyone near the area could have their sexual orientation called into question, costing them their jobs or jeopardizing their visa statuses. 

South Korea’s image can be damaged by implementing contact tracing imprudently. South Korea has already undergone heavy criticism internationally for its low internet freedom level amongst developed democratic countries. Further implementation of methods that look into citizens’ private lives that are not accompanied by guaranteed protection or detailed restrictions on how long the government can utilize these methods certainly calls on contract tracing with concern.

Learning From Our Global Past To Better Us Today

Looking at history validates our concerns, with a prime example of the United States during and after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The United States’ government’s implementation of the Patriot Act contained policies infringing on the people’s rights by allowing the government to spy and surveil the public in almost any form without a warrant. The excuse that it was implemented in a moment of emergency has been used to validate its actions. It also forced all doctors, universities, and internet service providers to allow government access to client and customer information. 

At that moment, the general public was scared and angry about the terrorist attacks. But, that fear allowed their individual rights to personal privacy and information to be legally reduced in the name of national security. The general public was under the impression that these rights would eventually be returned to them once the “threat” had been dealt with. However, the policies contained few guidelines, checks, or balances regarding the longevity of use or guaranteed rights protection. This continued longevity post-emergency and unregulated infringement on people’s rights have now become established as a new state of normalcy. A later breach of national security and release of classified government documentation by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks outlined the extent to which the United States government was surveilling their citizens to the public and the international community.

This is not to say that contact tracing in countries like South Korea can be compared to the same level of invasive information cataloged by the United States. Contact tracing has been extraordinarily beneficial and has kept COVID-19 cases under control in South Korea. This containment method is something that other countries should have tried to implement earlier in their containment efforts. There is a reason their methods have been praised on the world stage and continue to shine in comparison to the human rights-violating actions of China and the low inability to contain in the United States. 

However, what the people must now be conscious of and hold their governing bodies to is the regulation on how long these measures can be implemented and holding their governments accountable for the guaranteed protection of their personal information. Holding governments responsible for creating protection measures alongside the implementation of policies is a burden that falls on all everyday people. History has shown us that if individuals, governments, and organizations are allowed to operate unchecked and with unlimited power, they tend to continue to utilize and possibly abuse these powers conceded to them. The realization of this notion supports the idea that people must actively protect themselves by demanding protection measures. As a human race of imperfect people, we should never rely solely on blissful faith that our rights are always guaranteed. There will never be an unequivocal truth or moral path to life; we, the people, dictate what is allowed. The rights afforded to us by the sacrifices of prior generations demand collective action to create guaranteed protection alongside any form of emergency action. 

About Matthew F. Fleming 7 Articles
[Former Senior Writer for NOVAisa] Fleming holds a Master’s Degree in Global Affairs and Policy from Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, where he specialized in dual research areas: International Security and Foreign Policy, and International Law and Organizations. During his studies at Yonsei University, Fleming was selected to receive funding to pursue a second master's degree at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, serving as a dual-degree representative between Yonsei University and Keio University. The culmination of this academic endeavor was the successful defense of his thesis, titled “U.S.-Japan-ROK Trilateralism from Obama to Biden: Expanding on Theoretical Norms of Understanding Through Aspects of Building Trilateralism and U.S. Involvement in Japan-Korea Conflict Issues.” This achievement earned him a Master’s Degree in Media and Governance from Keio University, specializing in Global Governance and Regional Strategy. Fleming possesses a background in mechanical and substantive copyediting, academic research, and editorial writing. He has interned at distinguished institutions, including the East Asia Institute—a prominent think tank based in Seoul—as well as the academic journals managed by the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies: the North Korean Review (NKR) and the Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies (JTMS). His research interests include the evolving U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship, democracy and human rights movements across the Asia-Pacific region, and the growing prioritization of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific within U.S. Foreign Policy.