South Korean CSI makes citizens wary of Big Brother surveillance

The following article has been contributed to Privacy Laws & Business International Newsletter with the help of Prof. Graham Greenleaf, Asia-Pacific Editor of PL&B Int. It will be published in the forthcoming issue of PL&B Int.

During the past few weeks, South Koreans were surprised to see that common peoples' privacy is not protected at all in the process of investigation of crimes.
As the incidents made news headlines day after day, it was like seeing the sudden rise and fall of celebrities.

Arrest of a prophetic blogger

The first incident was the arrest of a famous financial blogger in the middle of January.
In the midst of global financial crisis in the second half of 2008, a mysterious pundit named "Minerva" in an online debate site thrilled other participants by a prophet-like forecasting and criticism of the government's handling of the economy.
When a Korean government-owned bank was said to purchase a US investment bank, Minerva correctly foresaw the collapse of Lehman Brothers in advance. His forecast of sharp depreciation of the Korean currency turned out to be true.
This outspoken critic of the government economic policy was called as an "Oracle" or an "Economic President" by fellow netizens, and government officials were hurried to answer Minerva's postings on the Internet bulletin board.

At the year end of 2008, Minerva warned in his blog the government's clandestine intervention in the foreign exchange market by arguing that the government officials ordered foreign exchange bankers to stop trading.
The government accused Minerva that he spread false rumors and caused damage to the foreign exchange market and to Korea's international credibility.
Police chased his IP address and identified the name and address of the blogger with the help of the Internet portal. His arrest invoked again the constitutional issue of freedom of expression.
The court clarified the cyberspace cannot be considered hallowed ground for speech by issuing an arrest warrant against him. The penal proceeding ahead is believed to draw keen attention at home and abroad because his case has been reported by foreign press.
At the moment, proposed legislation to punish ungrounded libel and defamation in the cyberspace is pending in the National Assembly.

What surprised the general public again was that he is not a foreign educated financial specialist but a self-educated unemployed 32-year old man.
What makes matters more interesting was a monthly news magazine had published an interview with self-claimed Minerva a few months ago, who has nothing to do with the man in custody.
The public is waiting for the second round of a true-or-false game, which will be investigated by the prosecutors. This time the investigation and related test of the problem IP address could prove who is a false Minerva once again.

Protecting the privacy of a serial killer

The second incident was when CCTV in countryside provided decisive evidence to the arrest of a serial killer in the late January.
When a young woman disappeared and her credit card was used by a man at an ATM in remote outskirts of Seoul, police suspected he must be the culprit.
But he could not be identified because he covered his face deeply with a baseball cap.
As a last resort, the investigators examined the digital images of more than seventeen hundred vehicles and the alibis of their drivers who had passed under the nearby CCTV camera at the relevant time span.

Finally, police arrested a nice looking guy who had driven a luxurious sedan to induce the victim to get in the car. To their surprise, he confessed a serial murder when facing the DNA evidence from a blood spot taken inside of his SUV.
Consequently, police solved the murder cases of seven missing women, and committed themselves to pursue several countermeasures.
To make the countryside more safe and secure, the National Police Agency (NPA) asks local banks to install new ATMs that will not permit people who cover their faces to withdraw cash.
And police stations, police officers and high-tech CCTV cameras will be added across the province by the end of this year.
The most important thing is that NPA will submit a bill to the National Assembly again to establish a gene bank which stores the genetic profiles of felons who have committed murder, robbery or rape.
Meanwhile, the authorities concerned are considering to disclose to the public the faces of felony suspects. So far, it has not been allowed on account of the breach of human rights of the suspect.

Misgivings

In conclusion, Korean citizens now know that where, what and how they are doing with PCs and ATMs, and even to where driving a car could be monitored by someone.
In the age of enhanced surveillance, ordinary citizens are not confident whether the Big Brother will protect them at any time and any place, but instead may pinpoint and discipline the anti-government activist in its own manner.