|Civic groups hold a press conference on the state of privacy protection in Korea, at the building of the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Seoul, Thursday, before a two-week investigation visit by Joseph Cannataci, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy. Korea Times photo by Lee Suh-yoon|
Civic groups hope UN rapporteur's visit can spur privacy debate in Korea
By Lee Suh-yoon
A U.N. special rapporteur will visit Korea to investigate allegations of surveillance by intelligence organizations of citizens and their illegal collection of data as well as other privacy violations, a human rights groups said Thursday.
The "watchdog position" of special rapporteur on the right to privacy was created in 2015 after Edward Snowden's revelations of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency. Joseph Cannataci, the first privacy rapporteur, has sharply criticized western governments for excessive surveillance measures in the past.
Korea, one of the most wired nations in the world, is up next, and Cannataci will visit Korea from July 15 to 26.
"We hope his visit will raise public awareness on privacy issues in the general social infrastructure," Lee Mi-ru, an activist at the Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet, said in a press conference held by civic groups in Seoul, Thursday, to share their report on privacy violations in Korea.
In Korea, all smartphone registration requires the owner's resident registration number, allowing all of its activities to become traceable digital footprints. And authorities have been caught using this data for political reasons more than once.
In 2015, the National Intelligence Agency came under fire for purchasing R.C.S. A digital spyware that secretly installs itself on a target's phone or computer to access messages, calls and location data. Though the agency said it used it only against North Korean spies, multiple media outlets, reported there was evidence the agency bought the spyware specifically for domestic purposes.
Telecommunication records are also handed over to government agencies too easily, according to civic groups.
"Until recently, courts would almost automatically issue investigators permits to review a year's worth of citizen's telecommunication," Yang Hong-seok, a human rights lawyer with the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, said. There have been some signs of change, he added, due to the Constitutional Court's recent rulings against the state's data collection of "unlikely suspects" ― such as union leaders on strike.
The civic groups said government authorities trawl personal data at will, stepping outside reasonable boundaries to monitor unlikely suspects or political dissidents. In a 2014 case mentioned in the groups' report, the police collected the personal information of thousands of social security recipients who were male and born between 1965 and 1985 to track down a graffiti artist who sprayed anti-Park Geun-hye messages in the city's eastern district.
In the same year, a military intelligence unit was found to have spied on families of the Sewol ferry disaster, after they criticized the government's response to the sinking. Using military spyware, the Defense Security Command tapped the targets' phone lines and eavesdropped on their private conversations, according to leaked DSC documents.
"Such incidents keep happening due to a lack of proper oversight over data collection by intelligence or investigative authorities," Oh Byoung-il, head of Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet, said. "I believe the U.N. special rapporteur will also focus on this aspect in his inquiry."
The special rapporteur will announce the preliminary results of his two-week investigation in a press briefing in Seoul, July 26.