Butterfly Effect: South Korea Isn’t the Model We Need Against the Virus - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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South Korea is held up as the model for success against the coronavirus. Other democracies should avoid Seoul's path.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

If the fight to bring the coronavirus to heel were a race among nations, we have a clear winner. South Korea is the world’s envy in the battle against the pandemic, its success in rapidly flattening the curve no doubt already the subject of countless research papers that will be published in the coming weeks and months.

But while we’ve all heard of the country’s unwavering emphasis on swift testing, there’s another critical tool it has deployed that’s leaving governments salivating the world over, including in the West: mass surveillance. And if history’s any indicator, that should worry us all.

South Korea’s agencies mine citizens’ credit card and cellphone data, and triangulate that with CCTVs and facial recognition to track where every confirmed coronavirus patient has been in previous weeks. That’s used to identify all those the patient might have infected, and then to quarantine or test them.

Of course, China set the ball rolling, using cellphone tracking and facial recognition to strictly enforce what was at that point an unparalleled lockdown in the city of Wuhan — the birthplace of the virus — and then in some other parts of the country. Using smartphones, the government assigns every citizen a color code: green means they’re safe to travel, red means they must stay home. Singapore followed suit, using an app called TraceTogether to track signals between cellphones to see if potential carriers of the virus are physically close to other people.

But while that’s not surprising from China and Singapore — hardly exemplars of democracy — countries with robust political oppositions have quickly done the same with little resistance. In Israel, where no party has ever enjoyed a clear majority in parliament, the internal security agency Shin Bet is using cellphone data to enforce lockdowns. South Korea is a modern model of democratic accountability. Its last president, Park Geun-hye, is in jail for corruption.

The bad guys might have changed, but we’ve seen this story before.

Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. is using data from mobile ad companies to determine whether people are complying with stay-at-home orders. The U.K., Germany and Russia are all developing apps that will help track the movements of known patients and alert others to stay away from areas where they might be exposed.

What’s wrong, you might ask. Surely public health trumps personal liberties, right? Indeed, the success of South Korea, China and Singapore in controlling the spread of the coronavirus appears to back up the benefits of mass surveillance in these times.

Views of DBS, OCBC and UOB Banks Ahead of Earnings Announcements

A man walks toward security cameras in the central business district of Singapore, a leader in coronavirus mass surveillance.

Source Ore Huiying/Bloomberg via Getty

Yet this isn’t the first time the need to save human lives has been cited to convince civil society to give up privacy. The bad guys might have changed — from shadowy terrorists with bombs strapped onto their chests, to invisible but often fatal droplets — but we’ve seen this story before.  

After 9/11, the U.S. pushed through the Patriot Act that allowed American security agencies unprecedented legal sanction to access and monitor the data and personal information of the country’s citizens. Britain passed a web of its own stringent anti-terrorism laws. Two months after hijackers brought down the Twin Towers, terrorists attacked India’s parliament. In the aftermath, India passed its own version of the Patriot Act, called the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

A war against an unseen enemy — whether a terrorist or a virus — that has killed thousands of innocent people, and is threatening to murder many more, offers legitimacy to intrusive surveillance that in other times might spark widespread criticism.

To be sure, as with the virus, surveillance has proven useful in counter-terrorism. It has helped law enforcement agencies scour gigantic volumes of call data to pluck out words and patterns that reveal potential plots, and then stop bombs from blowing up in crowded markets and on planes.

(U.S. deaths from the coronavirus as compared to American losses in modern wars.)

But for years after 9/11, we as societies — and many in the news media who were expected to play the role of watchdog — largely suspended our innate skepticism of those in power. We agreed to let surveillance programs expand without independent oversight.

By the time we woke up, things had gone too far. As we now know, the National Security Agency snooped on millions of innocent Americans, and even world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, using tools that were meant to be deployed only to find terrorists.

We’re being told that the tracking technology deployed against the virus will be packed up and put away once the pandemic passes. But the fears and anxieties that the virus will leave in its wake will linger for months, if not years, just as they did in a different context after 9/11. Each time there’s a public health crisis, those concerns will amplify, and the argument for mass surveillance will repeat itself.

Already, a recent survey in the U.K. found two-thirds of respondents willing to let authorities use credit card details, phone data and CCTVs to control the virus.

At the least, Congress — and parliaments in other countries — must be given mandatory oversight over any repeated use of such technologies. Democracies and their citizens have paid the price before for letting down their guard. The virus has brought Big Brother evangelists to our doors again. Let’s not make that mistake this time.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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