No more unauthorized spying

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No more unauthorized spying

The Constitutional Court has put the brakes on the spying by investigative authorities on individual telecommunication records without consent. On Thursday, the top court ruled that the prosecution, police, the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (CIO), military and the National Intelligence Service (NIS) must inform suspects that they are looking into their communication records after those agencies committed such an act — in case the authorities did it without a court-issued warrant. In the wake of the ruling by the court, the National Assembly must revise the current Telecommunication Business Act — which allowed investigative agencies to check sensitive telecommunication records at their discretion — by the end of next year.

Potential unconstitutionality of the telecommunication law has been debated since the days of democracy movements in the 1970s and 80s. The issue was put under the microscope after the CIO excessively screened telecommunication records of a number of suspects last year to find criminal evidence from socially explosive cases. In the process of investigating those cases, the CIO methodically looked into piles of telecommunication records of politicians, journalists, lawyers and members of civic groups. In an infamous case over the suspicion that the People Power Party (PPP) pressured the prosecution to bring criminal charges against pro-government figures in 2020 when President Yoon Suk-yeol was a prosecutor general, the CIO under the liberal Moon Jae-in administration accessed a plethora of telecommunication records of up to 80 PPP lawmakers and more than 100 reporters.

After the news broke that CIO head Kim Jin-wook gave special treatment to Lee Sung-yoon — then chief of the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office — during the course of investigation, the CIO was hell bent on finding out who leaked that information. In the process, telecommunication records of a number of journalists and even the mother of a reporter were exposed. But CIO chief Kim flatly denied his violation of the law.

The Constitutional Court did not find fault with the arbitrary referencing of communication records. Yet the top court pointed out the need for investigative authorities to notify people of their act of surveilling communication records after they obtained the records within the boundaries of not hampering their own investigations.

The Constitutional Court also underscored the need for investigative agencies to strictly limit the scope of surveillance so as not to infringe on the privacy of citizens. We hope the legislature will revise the Telecommunication Business Act by the deadline to reflect Thursday’s meaningful decision by the top court.
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