The country owed much of its relative success in finding those infected with the virus to its aggressive use of surveillance camera footage, smartphone data and credit card transaction records. The government, which did not reveal patients’ names, sometimes released revealing data such as their addresses and employers.
The information has empowered trolls, harassers and other 21st-century scourges. The authorities have since pulled back on some of their more obtrusive tactics, though South Koreans still have raised relatively few outcries over privacy.
“I don’t think this reflects a lack of respect for privacy in South Korea,” said Park Kyung-sin, a professor at Korea University School of Law and an expert on privacy. “Rather, people seem to think that at a time of a pandemic, privacy can be sacrificed for the sake of public health.”
Doxxing — digging up and publishing malicious personal information — had already been a growing problem in the country, often cited in the recent suicides of K-pop stars.
In the initial desperate months of the pandemic, restaurants visited by patients were sometimes treated as if they were cursed. Citing one patient’s frequent visits to karaoke parlors, online trolls claimed that she must be a prostitute. Gay South Koreans began to fear being outed, prompting the government to promise them anonymity in testing after an outbreak erupted at a gay club in Seoul in May.
Other than China, South Korea is virtually the only country in the world whose government has the power to collect such data at will during an epidemic, Professor Park said.