A nation of big brothers

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A nation of big brothers

The author is a deputy editor of economic policy team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I had a scary experience on the subway. A public announcement said that if you spot a passenger not wearing a face mask, you should report it on an app. Of course wearing a mask is required, but I was more frightened of the suggestion that we should be watching each other.
If you search for “mask” online in Korea, you’ll see an auto-suggested entry asking if you want to report someone not wearing a mask. A user whose online ID is “sixth grader” posted on a portal site on Sept. 15, “Is it true that the reward for taking a photo of and reporting a person not wearing a mask is 30,000 won ($25)?” Last week, when the social distancing level was 2.5, the owner of a restaurant where I am a regular lamented that owners in the area were busy watching one another.
A friend who works at a district office in Seoul claims that he cannot do his job because of the number of inquiries about where to send violation photos for rewards. In the past, people used to report illegal dumping for rewards. As surveillance becomes an economic activity, Korea is evolving into a society where mutual surveillance is considered a way to make money in 2020.
Another problem is a lack of sensitivity toward personal information. Until last week, I couldn’t buy a cup of coffee without logging my address and mobile phone number. I was perplexed by the list being exposed to strangers.
Personal information is money. There’s a reason that address label shredders are a popular item in stationery stores abroad. Those making money from phishing would rejoice over the abundance of personal information available here.
The lack of personal information sensitivity is another dark side of this surveillance society.
The surveillance economy is mostly used in the context of intelligence agencies and government watching the citizens in unlawful ways to achieve their crooked goals. The keyword on liberal think tank New American Foundation’s 2013 report was “surveillance economy.” It analyzed that wiretapping on businesses and individuals by the National Security Agency (NSA), which was established after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, caused a substantial economic loss. Surveillance may seem useful, but in the end, it will lower the efficiency of the community.
In Korea in 2020, the government openly encourages a surveillance economy by offering rewards to people. As we get used to it, we don’t trust each other, hate each other and report each other. Trust — a social capital that cannot be bought with money — is falling fast. The sadness of 2020 is compounded by a sudden rash of insensitivity.
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