The dark side of IT: privacy erosion
These days the kids’ grandmother gets them from school while Ms. Shin joins “comrades” for sit-in protests in front of the National Assembly building in Yeouido.
Ms. Shin is one of 13 female factory workers from Hitec RCD Korea, a manufacturer of model airplanes. Taking turns on a nearly 200-day protest, the women want the government to punish their employer, whom they accuse of secretly watching them through closed-circuit television cameras at the factory, and compensate them for medical expenses incurred while treating their psychological suffering.
“We are victims of an illegal surveillance system,” read posters hanging around their protest tent. “We are hurt and suffering from mental trauma.”
Of the 13 women, five have been fired by the company for causing labor disputes. But their real crime, they say, was complaining about the company’s surveillance system which appeared to target women who joined the labor union.
The company responded that the cameras are for security, and said it removed several after the local media reported on the issue earlier this year. But workers note that cameras remain ― particularly near where the so-called “troublemakers” are working.
“When I found out that the company had been watching me all along, I couldn’t stop shaking,” said Ms. Shin, who has worked at the same firm for 18 years ― since the age of 20. She started having headaches and developed a habit of covering cracks in the walls with newspapers to prevent someone from watching her, she said.
Ms. Shin and her colleagues want their employer to be punished and the quasi-governmental Korean Labor Welfare Corporation to recognize the sleeping pills they used to cope psychologically as treatment for an “industrial accident,” which would qualify them for reimbursement.
The Korea Labor Welfare Corporation has yet to do so, said Lee Min-jeong, a member of a civic group that supports the victims. “The labor organization may have ‘advised’ the company to stop making the workers uncomfortable, but that is not legally binding.”
Ms. Shin said she does not know when she will feel better or stop protesting.
To draw attention to her and similar cases, a coalition of advocacy groups linked to an international privacy movement last month handed out “Big Brother Award Korea” to companies, government bodies and individuals who have done the most to threaten personal privacy.
“There are very serious cases prevalent throughout the country, but some people do not even know or care whether their privacy is being invaded,” said Kim Jeong-woo, policy coordinator at Jinbonet, an advocacy group for privacy, and an organizer of the Big Brother Award Korea. “Actually, a lot of what invades personal privacy has already become part of our daily lives.”
According to the advocacy groups, people were far less sensitive about disclosing their personal information when they had reasonable excuses. Most people were very generous about giving away personal and biological information for the sake of convenience.
“Technology using finger prints, the iris of the eyes, radio frequency identification methods, surveillance cameras and cell phones. There lie potential dangers in these scientific benefits,” said Mr. Kim.
But neither Mr. Kim nor the group oppose technological development. He supports a digitally sophisticated society under the condition that individuals are fully aware of what they can gain and lose.
He points to the controversy surrounding proposals to set up closed circuit television cameras in the streets of Seoul after Gangnam district reported a 32 percent decline in the number of criminal cases after cameras were installed in the district.
But according to a separate study by civic groups and the Democratic Labor Party, although cameras led to a decrease in criminal cases ― to 95 from the previous 122 ― in less than six months, the cases jumped back to 123 again, showing the fleeting effect of the cameras.
The overall crime rate in Seoul has decreased by 0.01 percent from last year, the study said, but for Gangnam, the rate increased by 16.7 percent.
“The cameras only helped to reduce the rate of public urination and graffiti,” Park Jun-woo, an activist, wrote in the privacy advocacy magazine NetWorker.
For this reason, the Gangnam district office was also a strong candidate for the Big Brother Award Korea. However, the “Most Appalling Project” award was “won” by Korea’s resident registry system, which assignsa national ID number to every citizen.
“It’s the remains of the dictatorial government,” read the final judges statement. “The system was responsible for creating various leaks of personal information.”
The award for “Worst Public Servant” went to the Ministry of Information and Communication for enforcing a real-name policy on all Internet activities.
“It was hypocritical for the ministry to seek ways to force people to disclose their real names on Web pages, when its slogans advocate freedom on the Internet,” said the judges.
Hitec RCD Korea came close to receiving the “Most Invasive company” award, but the final honor was given to a recipient ambiguously referred to as “the third person responsible for the Samsung SDI case,” in which Samsung was suspected of using company cell phones to eavesdrop on conversations and track the location of employees affiliated with labor unions.
However, the case was eventually dismissed by prosecutors due to a lack of evidence.
Unsurprisingly, no recipients showed up to accept their awards at a ceremony held in Daebang-dong in western Seoul earlier this month. But the civic groups used the occasion to firmly make their point.
“Technology and convenience can never be reasons to undermine people’s privacy,” said Oh Byoung-il, executive director of Jinbonet.
by Lee Min-a
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