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How are APC members improving their communities’ lives? In this column we’re highlighting stories of impact and change by our members, supported by APC subgranting. With South Korea actively responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jinbonet has worked on analysing the country's epidemic prevention policies and systems, and their effects on human rights and privacy.

How is epidemic prevention in South Korea implemented?

The epidemic prevention system in South Korea has often been considered a success, but in order to combat COVID-19 the Korean government collected, processed and disclosed sensitive personal information, which includes information on health, geographic location, personal tastes and relationships. To better understand how this was carried out, Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet, a non-governmental organisation founded in 1998 and a member of APC based in South Korea, is analysing epidemic prevention systems and exploring ways to minimise privacy infringement.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading in Korea, Jinbonet, which advocates for human rights in the information society and responds to threats posed by governmental and market powers, was well positioned to engage in this issue. In the second half of 2020, the organisation used a small grant from APC to quickly convene around a project entitled “Response to COVID-19 and privacy in South Korea”, which analysed privacy rights and violations in responding to the crisis, from a human rights perspective.

“Korea’s case is worth further researching, as its strong surveillance measures are globally praised as effective in combating COVID-19,” Jinbonet stressed in conversation with APC. “There were no strict restrictions on movement such as imposing curfews or lockdowns, or blocking the entry of travellers from overseas, yet the country managed to contain the disease and keep the number of confirmed cases low.” Policies such as adoption of electronic bracelets against violators of self-isolation or mandatory records of facility access, which infringe basic privacy rights, were justified in the name of preventing infectious diseases, the organisation noted. “The government thinks that policies centred on punishment and control are more effective.”

How to best respond to infectious diseases while minimising privacy infringements?

The fundamental problem, according to the organisation, is the lack of an adequate supervisory system to prevent abuse of authority or human rights violations. The country's current Infectious Disease Prevention Act rules that the administrative authorities for the prevention of infectious diseases, such as the Ministry of Health and Welfare or the head of a local government, can decide "what the information that the people need to know to prevent infectious diseases is" and "which information is necessary to prevent infectious diseases and block transmission of infection" at their discretion.

Jinbonet stresses the need for a supervisory body that monitors whether information disclosed by health authorities or local governments infringes on the rights of data subjects excessively and whether epidemiological investigations collect personal information more than necessary. It should also have the authority to submit opinions on new laws, policies or guidelines related to the prevention of infectious diseases.

In analysing Korean policies and systems to respond infectious diseases, rich discussions were held with diverse stakeholders through several workshops held by Jinbonet, including among human rights activists, public health activists, law and health care professionals, and members of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea and the Personal Information Protection Commission.

As part of the Human Rights Network, which is composed of human rights groups in various fields, including people with disabilities, sexual minorities, health care workers and digital rights activists, Jinbonet also issued statements questioning government policies in addressing COVID-19 and suggesting alternatives. Improvements proposed by civil society groups were reflected in policy making, such as the guideline regarding the disclosure of patient movements. 

Teaming up with lawyers, Jinbonet worked on an amendment of the Infectious Disease Prevention Act in a way that is protective of digital rights. In December 2020, they held a webinar with political representatives to discuss the draft, and they are currently in the process of finalising the civil society amendment and proposing it to the National Assembly.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a phenomenon in South Korea, but it is a task for all countries to cope with infectious diseases while protecting human rights,” the organisation emphasised. “However, since COVID-19 is quite an unprecedented phenomenon, there is no predetermined answer and we need to find it together.” 

Jinbonet now plans to conduct data-driven analyses and comparative studies with other countries. “We hope our work on the Korean model will be a good resource for finding solutions that are respectful of digital rights.”

Read also

COVID-19 and the Right to Privacy: An analysis of South Korean experiences


This piece is a version of the information provided by Jinbonet as part of the project Response to the COVID-19 and privacy in South Korea”, adapted for the Seeding Change column, which presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through its core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects.

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