Bureau pressed staffers to turn over their phones

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Bureau pressed staffers to turn over their phones

Some public officials who have been investigated by the Blue House special inspection bureau said that they felt they couldn’t refuse when they were asked to hand over their personal cellphones for warrantless inspections.

The bureau’s phone inspection practices were questioned during the National Assembly Steering Committee’s meeting on Dec. 31, when opposition lawmakers criticized the bureau for inspecting the officials’ personal cellphones without a court-issued warrant.

“They made me sign an agreement to submit my phone for inspection, but it was practically the same as having my phone raided,” a former senior-ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the JoongAng Ilbo. “I still remember the officials from the special inspection bureau who demanded my phone in threatening tones and words. It was traumatic.”

In 2017, the bureau investigated around a dozen officials of the Foreign Ministry over alleged leaks of state secrets. The Blue House special inspection bureau is under the office of the presidential secretary for anticorruption, Park Hyoung-chul. Park’s office is supervised by the senior secretary for civil affairs, Cho Kuk, who was appointed in May 2017. The bureau’s job was to look for corruption among top government officials appointed by Moon as well as the president’s family.

Cho was criticized by opposition lawmakers during the National Assembly Steering Committee’s meeting on Dec. 31 for what they said were raids of personal cellphones of officials without a court-issued search warrant.

“The Blue House inspection bureau illegally searched the phones without a court-issued warrant,” said opposition Liberty Korea Party Rep. Lee Yang-soo in a written statement on Sunday. “Search and raid is only allowed under the authority granted by a warrant issued by a court - that guarantees the protection of the constitutional right of individual privacy.”

Cho said that the bureau had the officials sign agreements to submit their cellphones for inspection.

“Of course, the bureau has no right to seize and search without a warrant,” Cho wrote on his Facebook account on Monday. “The bureau investigated public officials’ cellphones after receiving a statement of agreement from them.”

Given the general perception among public officials that the bureau is directly connected to Blue House leadership, some experts said that officials are not given a choice on whether to comply or not.

“Public officials do not have the choice to say no to these inspections,” said Yang Hong-seok, a lawyer and a member of the Korean Bar Association. “Though they sign these agreements, they are practically forced to sign them.”

The association said it is looking into the legality of the bureau’s policy on inspecting the personal cellphones of public officials. Some officials said the inspection by the bureau feels too wide-reaching.

“During the previous administration, the bureau would take your phone to inspect it but return it within around two to three hours,” an official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “In this administration, they take your phone and inspect it for three to four days.”

The official, whose phone was inspected by the bureau, said that an inspector from the bureau told him, “You must have done something that the Blue House didn’t like,” when he asked why his phone had to be confiscated for so long.

BY PARK TAE-IN, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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