Phone companies give names of people in ItaewonKorea’s three mobile carriers are helping to find people who may be part of the Covid-19 Itaewon cluster — including some who have evaded being tracked down.
The Seoul city government said Tuesday it obtained contact information of 10,905 people through base station records from SK Telecom, KT and LG U+.
The list includes names, telephone numbers and addresses of people whose phones connected to 17 base stations near five clubs in Itaewon-dong, central Seoul, where a Covid-19 infection seems to have begun in the early hours of May 2. It was sent to the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Seoul city government on Monday and Tuesday.
“The list includes people who stayed in the designated area for more than 30 minutes between midnight and 5 a.m. from April 24 to May 5,” said a KT spokesman.
Base stations constantly receive and transmit signals with mobile phones that enter its range, meaning as long as a device’s power is on, it will connect to the stations even if one does not make a call or send a text message. These records can narrow down a phone's location to under 100 meters (328 feet).
Such location data is protected personal information that would normally require a warrant and court approval to be gotten from a phone company. The quick cooperation of the mobile carriers was based on a clause in the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act. Article 76-2 states telecommunication businesses should comply with health authorities or local police requests to provide location information on patients or those likely to be infected, as long as the measure is necessary to block the spread of infection.
“As stated in the law, our job is offering the list of people according to the set of standards suggested by health authorities. Making a judgment on which of these people are possibly infected depends on them,” said an SK Telecom spokesman.
This is the fourth time mobile carriers have offered location data on its subscribers since Covid-19 started spreading in the country. The previous cases were for outbreaks at a call center in Guro District, western Seoul; at an internet cafe in Dongdaemun District, eastern Seoul; and at a bar in Seorae Village, southern Seoul.
What’s particular about the latest case is that the data isn’t limited to a specific building or time span, but part of an entire neighborhood over a period of two weeks.
“The list has people that stayed in the region for more than 30 minutes so the possibility that they were infected is not low,” said an anonymous mobile carrier source. “The Itaewon case was an emergency — the possibility of infection was high, and local authorities are having problems identifying these people. We had no choice but to comply with their request.”
The legal basis for local authorities demanding location data was established after Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) swept the country in 2015, and the government was criticized for being slow in obtaining information on patients’ routes. The current Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act is the result of two sets of revisions in 2015 and 2018.
Academics largely agree on the need for swift action to block the spread of Covid-19 but question how much information should be disclosed.
“Before Covid-19, we never really had an infectious disease of this scale nor did we have a preventive system against it,” said Hwang Sung-gi, a professor at Hanyang University’s law school.
“So at the moment, the utmost task is preventing any further spread. But we’ll eventually have to re-examine details and define from whom we should claim personal information, how we collect it and who should be in charge of processing it.
That’s the only way to find a balance between public health and protecting private information.”
BY SONG KYOUNG-SON, KIM KYUNG-JIN AND PARK HYUNG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]