The start of data-based governance
The author is a political science professor at Chung-Ang University and a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.
After daily Covid-19 cases exceeded 500 in the last week of February 2020, Korea entered the age of the pandemic. Since then, more than 1,500 people have died. About 80,000 patients survived the coronavirus. But many more have lost their jobs or were forced close down their businesses.
Pride about successfully fighting the virus — and anxiety over falling behind in the race to vaccinate— cannot fully describe the burdens and dark side of life in the age of the coronavirus.
Looking back at the last year, I can recall the expressions of Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Director Jeong Eun-kyeong, who fought on the front lines against the virus. Throughout last spring and summer, her calm and confident posture throughout her daily briefings gave us hope and comfort. As the winter arrived, we could see a tiredness in her composure, and we too felt fatigue.
While I am sorry to say so, I could read the dilemma of a data czar from Jeong’s familiar and expressionless face. Jeong has become the czar of an age of control through data, having access to a vast database recording the health status, movement and location of citizens. The law governing infectious disease prevention and control lists the type of data the KDCA director can access. That includes citizens’ national identification numbers and phone numbers, as well as medical records, entry and exit records and location data collected through mobile phones.
In other words, we have entered an age of data control where policy is implemented through the state’s collection of vast amounts of data on individuals’ physical status, health, location and movements. While we cannot help but feel bothered every time we enter individual QR codes to enter restaurants, we nonetheless open our smartphones for the sake of protecting our society’s health. Thus we are becoming accustomed to a life of compromised privacy.
After experiencing the era of development and globalization, we are now entering the age of data control, where our data is used to guarantee the public’s safety. But this new age poses several questions. First, what factors caused us to accept rule through the use of data in a matter of just a few months? Second, can we really return to a time before data control even if the coronavirus is brought under control by the latter half of this year?
More specifically, the first question deals with how we have been bred to become good citizens of the age of data control, where we surrender individual records on health and movement to allow the government to track and manage patients and those who came into contract with them.
Both material and psychological infrastructure helped usher in the age of rule by data. A high proliferation of information technology in Korea serves this material function. A world-class high speed internet network, high penetration of smartphone ownership and the rapid growth of data platform companies like Naver and Kakao testify to this. We have long achieved this material foundation capable of extracting private information from private companies and public institutions.
Just as this infrastructure is familiar to us, we also have tacitly accepted the psychological infrastructure enabling a rule by data. We have long become accustomed to trading our private data with convenience and lower prices. As we have become familiar with using Naver’s free email and news services, as well as Google’s free email and search engine, we have provided such companies with data on our preferences, hobbies, consumer habits and relationships. In other words, we have been readying ourselves for rule by data through a vast IT infrastructure, data based corporations and the voluntary surrendering of private data by consumers.
The second question refers to whether the age of data control, which has been used to intimately control the public and set guidance for proper behavior, will end once Covid-19 is subdued. The pessimistic view is that the state can always find new areas for data control even if the Covid-19 crisis is over. Examples of possible alibis include using expanding data control to combat crises like climate change or energy use. Perhaps such measures can be used to monitor who is emitting too much carbon, or who is wasting too much energy.
To respond to the infinite potential of data control to expand, citizens must constantly ask questions going forward. These include asking what criteria should be used to measure crises that necessitate expanding data control. Is it when the daily case load exceeds 500? Or when the annual growth rate for carbon emissions exceeds one percent? Also, who gets to determine such detailed standards? How much can citizens participate in deciding the government’s data policy?
I can recall the entreaties made by Oh Chang-hee, chairman of the Korea Association of Travel Agents, in a recent JoongAng Ilbo interview. Representing around a 1,000 travel agents whose livelihoods are at risk due to Covid-19, Oh urged authorities to come up criteria warranting quarantine measures based on data and science. Oh advised that if the government can closely examine data on infections, the time required of foreign travelers to stay in quarantine can be reduced to 10 or seven days like in Germany or France, thus relieving some of the difficulties faced by the travel industry.
A tug of war between free citizens and a state that has entered the era of data control has just begun.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.