[OUTLOOK]When privacy is infringed upon

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[OUTLOOK]When privacy is infringed upon

I was in Tokyo earlier this year, and used the subway to do most of my getting around. While doing so, I noticed something interesting: although many people in Tokyo had cellular phones, I had seen no one use one in the subway.
In our country, despite the signs posted in the subway asking people to lower their voice when talking on the phone, no one seems to feel any need to obey the request. When I mentioned this to the president of the Japanese branch of a domestic Internet portal company, his response was surprising. I received an unexpected response. Japanese people, he said, do not use their cellular phones in the subway because of the thought that their privacy might be compromised.
This executive also talked about his difficulties in the Internet business he was running then. He had started up a “mini-homepage” service of the kind that is popular in Korea, but he said there had been little response from the Japanese market. In his opinion, this also had to do with the privacy issue.
The mini-homepage sites depend on people posting pictures and comments about their daily lives, and more and more viewers being drawn to those sites. But Japanese people, he said, would seldom upload their pictures onto the mini-homepages. Words like “privacy” and “distrust” remained in my mind all through my stay in Japan.
Right now, all of Korea is in turmoil because of the illegal eavesdropping scandal. According to recent data, since the start of the present administration in 2003, the National Intelligence Service had on three occasions bought a variety of surveillance recording devices, including email collection devices on the Internet and data collection devices for collecting ADSL and ISDN signals.
It has also been revealed that between January and May of this year, the government agencies made more than 50,000 requests to telecommunications companies for reports on the records of conversations and on the identities of users of email and telephones, both wired and wireless.
And last year, the National Intelligence Service tapped 8,200 telephones, a substantial increase from 2,234 in 2002 and 5,424 in 2003.
What is more shocking is that the spy agency’s recently revealed illegal wiretapping and surveillance during the Kim Young-sam administration had in fact continued for four years under former President Kim Dae-jung, something the government had officially denied several times.
Even when surveillance and wiretapping is legal and done according to due process, the privacy of individuals is being compromised. But investigators and communication companies, the main actors of the wiretapping, seldom inform those individuals that their conversations have been recorded. Needless to say, illegal wiretapping is worse yet.
A more important point to make about the recent illegal wiretapping scandal is the aspect of social trust. For a society to stay healthy, predictability based on mututal trust is needed. The revelations concerning the National Intelligence Service have already made the government an object of distrust, and has left individuals dispirited in their daily lives.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis described privacy as “the right to be left alone” and “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” But this precious privacy has been overtly infringed upon. Our uneasiness is only heightened by the fact that we did not know it was happening.
Things we once said without thinking twice could come back as a sword to jeopardize our lives, our families and our acquaintances. This is never someone else’s problem. The mistrust in society has become that much higher, and the places where we cannot feel safe talking have multiplied.
Along with a thorough investigation of the illegal wiretapping scandal, it is urgent to have a comprehensive review of what is to be done in the future. First, the government should present the true picture of what was done to the people, and clearly explain the present situation. In doing so, it should pave the way to restore the trust of the people in the state.
In addition, the Protection of Communications Secrets Act should be expanded and revised, and it should be strictly enforced. The people already have the deeply ingrained perception that wiretapping could be an effective means for the government to obtain information easily, but that it should never be the method of first resort, and that the basic right to privacy should be given consideration over everything else.

* The writer is a professor of sociology at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Bae Young
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