South Koreans have had to deal with a series of affronts to their privacy recently, but one blow stings more than the rest: The country’s three main telecommunication companies — KT, SK Telecom and LG Uplus — have been funneling subscriber information to law enforcement agencies whenever a request is made, without demanding a warrant or informing affected customers.
They gave away names, addresses, resident registration numbers and other customer information pertaining to more than six million phone numbers in the first half of 2014 alone. All of that data now sits with law enforcement authorities, with no prospect of disposal.
The collusion between telecom firms and the state is just another item in a long list of invasions of privacy by the government since President Park Geun-hye became a contender for high office more than four years ago. Some commentators warned that Ms. Park’s election might stoke authoritarianism because of her appeal among conservatives who honor her late father, the anti-Communist dictator Park Chung-hee, but no one predicted the republic of surveillance that has taken shape under her watchful eyes.
This downward spiral began during the tenure of President Lee Myung-bak, Ms. Park’s predecessor. But under this president, surveillance has reached new heights.
Initially, government monitoring was said to have something to do with reducing crime, social instability and pro-North Korean activities. But surveillance has become so commonplace that the government and the public seem to have forgotten its purpose. Policing the Internet, poring over private chats, installing an ever-increasing number of close-circuit television cameras and collecting information on telecommunication users are all part of this government’s tool kit.
Ms. Park’s first year in power was dominated by talk of how the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, had monitored and participated in Internet discussions ahead of her December 2012 election in order to spread more positive views of the ruling party and Ms. Park, and to discredit the opposition. In the aftermath of the scandal, there was much handwringing about the need to better supervise state agencies and prevent similar abuses in the future.
Some measures took effect, such as the introduction of more checks on the power of the N.I.S. and the conviction the former N.I.S. chief, Won Sei-hoon, who was sentenced to three years in prison for intervening in the election. Yet state encroachment on freedom and privacy is worsening.
It was Ms. Park who remarked last September that insults and online rumors about her had “gone too far,” prompting prosecutors to set up a special team for monitoring the Internet. At that same time, in an alarming case reported in South Korean media, police officials and prosecutors investigated a teacher who demanded the president’s resignation online, and sought to obtain a warrant for her arrest, citing her use of Gmail, which is inaccessible to South Korean law enforcement and therefore indicative of some guilt, in the government’s view.
Then in October, it came to light that the N.I.S. had been obtaining warrants to look at chats on KakaoTalk, the top mobile messaging app, in the name of ferreting out pro-North Korean activists. The following month, a committee in the National Assembly began deliberating a motion from a lawmaker of the ruling Saenuri Party that would amend a law to compel operators to install surveillance equipment that would help the state monitor citizens.
Such officially mandated privacy violations are unfolding in a country already obsessively watched through close-circuit television cameras. In 2013 South Korea had more than 565,000 government CCTV cameras, up from 364,000 in 2011 and 462,000 in 2012.
While former President Lee by no means reacted warmly to criticism, Ms. Park and the Saenuri Party have shown a special zeal for suppressing challenges to her and her policies, jumping to label speech and activities opposing the official agenda as jongbuk or “pro-North Korea” and thus criminal.
Ms. Park may see the ratcheting up of surveillance as the only way to hold together a nation facing an old foe to the north and deeply divided between the left and the right. But the conscious exaggeration of security threats and the spread of paranoia through increased surveillance also help her administration advance economic policies that aim to protect oligarchic interests, deregulate state industries and to marginalize labor unions — all in the name of stability and growth.
In principle, Articles 17 and 18 of South Korea’s democratic Constitution prohibit the infringement of “privacy” and “privacy of correspondence.” But conservatives have sought to minimize those guarantees by invoking Article 37, which allows for curtailing rights “when necessary for national security, the maintenance of law and order or for public welfare.”
International condemnation is mounting over South Korea’s direction. Freedom House now classifies South Korea’s Internet and press freedoms as only “partly free” and has downgraded the country’s political rights rating by a notch for 2014. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called on the government to stop undermining freedom of expression, particularly in the arenas of politics and journalism.
Eventually, Ms. Park’s policies will threaten to undermine the “creative economy” she says she wants to stimulate. Her security and surveillance abuses are turning people away from the very technology companies that the country needs to stay competitive.
South Korea’s abrupt regression from a much-touted model of democracy into a land of fast-dwindling freedom is a cautionary tale even in this global age of surveillance. The erosion of privacy rights can and must be halted. We must be able to keep talking freely, even when there are those who would prefer our silence and blind submission.
Se-Woong Koo is the editor-in-chief of Korea Exposé, a news website specializing in the Korean Peninsula. He is writing a book on contemporary South Korean society and politics.