[EDITORIALS]Tracking Accounts Erodes Rights

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[EDITORIALS]Tracking Accounts Erodes Rights

Indiscriminate tracking of bank accounts without a warrant is taking place everywhere. Lee Ju-young, a lawmaker from the opposition Grand National Party, said in a report to the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the Assembly Thursday that the number of bank accounts tracked down by the National Tax Office, the Financial Supervisory Service and the National Election Commission are increasing each year. Among them, more than 90 percent of bank accounts are tracked without warrants, said Mr. Lee. This means that the government authorities can look up anybody's bank accounts at anytime, and it is doubtful whether the privacy of financial transactions is guaranteed.

According to Mr. Lee, 96,921 accounts were tracked in 1997. But since then the number has increased every year reaching 139,393 in 1998 and 193,106 in 1999. During the first six months of last year, 104,668 accounts were tracked. This implies that in the first half of the year, including holidays, about 580 bank accounts were investigated every day nationwide. It is no exaggeration to say that most financial transactions carried out in Korea can be scrutinized by government organizations.

The privacy of financial transactions is a basic right. The Constitution stipulates that the government should not encroach upon people's right to personal privacy. Therefore, tracking bank accounts in the absence of owners' consent, is an infringement on people's private lives and human rights. The government should minimize such activity and avoid account investigations without a court warrant. But the fact that the number has more than doubled since the Kim Dae-jung administration was inaugurated indicates that there have been many infringements on human rights. It is hard to understand why the number of trackings has soared?

The fact that more than 90 percent of investigations into bank accounts are done without a court warrant is a matter of grave concern. Under current laws, only a few government authorities, such as the Financial Supervisory Service and the National Tax Office, are allowed to conduct investigations into bank accounts, if necessary, without a court warrant. But the fact that trackings with warrants accounts for less than 10 percent of the cases and that most are done without one suggests that the government has overstepped its bounds. If this indiscriminate tracking of bank accounts is allowed, the warrant system under the authority of the courts is useless.

The government should stop stressing the legality of traces done without warrants and instead explain the sharp rise in this activity. Also, a thorough investigation is needed into whether the tracking procedures were legal and if there is any evidence of abuse by the authorities. In addition, the government should review laws that allow tracking without court warrants, such as real name financial transaction laws, fair trade acts, public service ethics act and election related laws. The government should speed up measures to minimize the number of trackings without warrants.

Also, it is shocking to hear from the minister of justice, Kim Jung-kil, as he reported before the National Assembly, that without taking due procedures, the prosecutors office temporarily hired officials at the Financial Supervisory Service to track bank accounts, especially when the abuse of tracings and their legality were the source of serious questions. The prosecutors office is an organization that should abide by the laws foremost and it should always keep in mind that the measures taken to conduct investigations should be lawful.
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