South Korea’s surveillance system is still suffering from growing pains

South Korea has been fast to combat COVID-19, quickly controlling what was at one point the largest outbreak outside of China. The country has experience dealing with influenza outbreaks, in 2012 it dealt with the second-largest outbreak of MERS, with 182 cases and 32 deaths. This time, test kits were developed as soon as the genome was released. Mass testing, including drive-through centres, have made South Korea the country with one of the highest tests per capita, up there with small island nations like Iceland and Bahrain.

Following the WHO directive of “test, test, test” has helped keep the death rate low in South Korea. Coupled with sophisticated contact tracing, South Korea has prevented the country from enacting an economy-crippling lockdown like the ones much of the world have now been forced into. However, social repercussions have emerged from their tactics.

Contact tracing

South Korea’s contract tracing system uses large amounts of data, including CCTV footage, credit card transactions, and phone and car GPS tracking data. The new system was co-developed by the Ministry of Science and ICT, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, and the KCDC (the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The system is based on the “smart city data hub programme” currently under development by the local government in Daegu, the epicentre of the South Korean outbreak.

The system revolves primarily around text alerts. The alerts are sent out to those who came into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The content of the message includes the patient’s gender and age range, and provides a URL which leads to a page that shows where the patient visited before they were hospitalised. 

Credit: BBC

The sharing of places last visited has led to embarrassing information being revealed, including trips to love hotels revealing extramarital affairs (until 2015 a crime in South Korea) and even attendance to a sexual harassment class. The details shown in the text alerts have led to a surge in prejudice towards people with the virus and criticism towards the government for their handling of the surveillance system.

Other apps 

Another app, developed by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, requires those in quarantine to stay in contact with caseworkers, report their health, and share their GPS to prove they are not violating their quarantine. Officials say it was introduced to manage the large numbers of infections in South Korea, including the “super spreaders”, who have been the centre of much outrage in South Korea. The app, however, is not mandatory, and a system of traditional phone calls can be used instead.

The South Korean government has also developed a self-diagnosis app for those arriving in the country. The app allows you to report symptoms and be referred for a test if necessary. Several other privately-developed apps are emerging in South Korean app stores, the most popular ones tracking COVID-19 hot spots in the country.

Public opinion

South Korean laws on publicly sharing information on patients of infectious diseases changed significantly after the 2015 MERS outbreak. Due to the public criticism the government faced for its withholding of information on infections during the outbreak, the Infectious Disease Control and Prevent Act came into effect, which laid the groundwork for the contact tracing system used today.

Now though, the government is receiving criticism for revealing too much sensitive information. Although South Korea stands as a model in how to combat COVID-19, the usage of surveillance in its effort remains a contested subject, and its policy is set to adjust once again.

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