A vestige of the authoritarian era

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A vestige of the authoritarian era

This is a trivial story.

It all began with a notice from the National Human Rights Commission to the Financial Services Commission in October 2014, which advised financial companies to destroy the fingerprints they had collected.

These businesses make copies of the back of residents’ identification cards, which contain their fingerprints, and keep them for official records - a serious infringement on human rights.

The Financial Services Commission accepted the recommendation and sent out a guidance letter last month to each financial association.

“Fingerprints should not be collected, and the collected information that we currently have should be destroyed within five years,” it read.

But while it was merely written a guidance letter, dismissing it would have been a grave violation of the Credit Information Act and the Personal Information Protection Act, subject to up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 50 million won ($45,475).

The Financial Services Commission’s decision led to considerable consequences. Banks began reviewing the process, which turned out to be challenging. Banks currently have 2.8 billion fingerprints to destroy, which will cost hundreds of billions of won. Deleting one entry every minute would take 15,981 years, assuming the work was carried out over eight hours per day throughout the year.

Having 15,981 people work on it for a year? It would be easier, but it’s impossible and storage space is not large enough to accommodate that many workers. Each entry must be retrieved, the fingerprint deleteds and stored away.

The fingerprints are saved in various formats, from microfilm to hard copies. It is nearly impossible to destroy them all in five years. The financial authorities realized the challenge and decided to seek a compromise by forming a task force next month. It is fortunate, albeit late. But the financial companies still feel skeptical, as they could be blamed for not meeting guidelines when the administration changes.

Who put the banks in such an awkward position? Actually, it was the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, not the Human Rights Commission or the Financial Services Commission.

Why did they even put fingerprints on the resident ID card in the first place? Fingerprints began to be included on the ID card on Nov. 21, 1968. Clause 2, Article 24 of the Resident Registration Act requires fingerprints be included in the ID card. During the times when armed North Korean infiltrators encroached upon the Blue House, the fingerprints were essential for security.

In a way, it is a legacy of the dictatorial era five decades ago. Let’s just say the fingerprints were at least a bit useful back then, as they were used for verification when seal certificates were issued or loans were approved. But today, fingerprints have no use.

A civil servant was recently caught fabricating fingerprints with silicon in order to get overtime pay. People often bring their driver’s licenses with them and leave their resident registration cards at home, since losing it would be a hassle.

The Human Rights Commission was on the wrong track. Before advising the Financial Services Commission to destroy fingerprints, it should have recommended that the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs repeal the use of fingerprinting on ID cards.

When I asked a ministry official in charge of the resident registration system about it, he gave a somewhat cliched answer. “We are now reviewing a complete overhaul of the resident registration number system,” he said, without specifying a direction or time line.

When I suggested removing fingerprints from the resident card first, he replied, “The law should be changed. I would like it if that’s possible.”

He became more serious about the conversation when I mentioned I was writing a column about it. He immediately asked when it would be printed. That’s what he was really interested in because it was his job to inform the minister in advance so that he was not surprised.

The president likes to talk about cooperation among ministries and deregulation. Fingerprinting does not require much cooperation and is hardly a deregulation target. It is a vestige of a shameful authoritarian era. But this unreasonable remnant is undermining financial competitiveness and the future of the IT industry in the 21st century. It is ignorant and brazen to talk about “swollen noodles” - referring to the legislation in gridlock - when fingerprinting cannot even be abolished.

Such unreasonable and outdated conventions must be improved in order to revive the economy and enhance national status. There are reasons why the country’s reputation has gotten so ridiculous, public sentiment so hostile and the country so divided.

The public could be turned away by something so trivial.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 26, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yi Jung-jae

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