[The Fountain] Controversy over fingerprints

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[The Fountain] Controversy over fingerprints

The author is the political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The National Human Rights Commission advised the government last month to not use remote facial recognition technology until related laws are enacted. The technology is used in the Ministry of Justice’s airport immigration system and the National Police Agency’s three-dimensional face recognition system for criminal suspects.

The Human Rights Commission explained that the advice was based on the “risk of violating confidentiality, the freedom of privacy and the freedom of assembly and association.” In a Financial Times article in 2020, Yuval Harari, author of “Sapiens,” warned that due to the spread of Covid-19, mass surveillance tools may become commonplace even in countries that had rejected surveillance technology. The Human Rights Commission has put the brakes on state surveillance as there are signs of it becoming commonplace.

The commission’s decision poses the question that the massive collection and use of personal biometric data by the state can infringe on basic rights. Authoritarian governments have collected and used personal information as a means to control people. The country where facial recognition technology is most actively used is China.

Korea also has a long history of such infringements. The collection of fingerprints of left and right thumbs when getting a resident registration card was introduced in 1968 during the Park Chung Hee administration. What triggered the measure was the attempted attack on the Blue House by 12 North Korean commandos in January that year. Starting in 1975, all citizens aged 17 or older must provide fingerprints of all 10 fingers to the government. The government forcibly collected biometric information of the people with the justification that it would help capture North Korean spies.

After constitutional complaints against collecting fingerprints were filed, the Constitutional Court upheld it as constitutional in 2005 and 2015. “The human rights infringement from fingerprinting is not greater than the public interest from criminal investigation,” said the court. In both cases, the decision was made 6-3.

The judges who gave minority opinions argued that it was unconstitutional as it put “the convenience of administration before the basic rights of the people” (2005) and “violates the right to self-determination of personal information” (2015). Eight years have passed since. The minority opinions valuing human rights over public interest are more noteworthy.

Human rights sensitivity has become more acute. On the fingerprint recognition entry system for elementary school students, the commission recommended that a plan be devised to minimize restriction of the basic rights of children. That is the spirit of the time.

Should all citizens still provide fingerprint information to catch criminals? I wonder what decision will be made if the Constitutional Court deliberates the fingerprinting of all 10 fingers again.
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