Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Jun 19, 2015

MERS mobile surveillance in Korea as extension of social practice: some takeaways for the development community

MERS and the Seoul Subway

Apologies for the absence in writing but most of my efforts have been directed towards creating a small consulting company (LLC to be exact), Panoply Digital, and so I wanted to bring some of that over here to share. It isn’t as pedagogical or academic as what is usually here, but it is where much of my effort is now being focused on so here you are. I still think it begins to explore many of my existing research themes, particularly how technologies are essentially the aggregation and material manifestation of social and cultural practices pervasive in society. Quite a few specific to the Korean context are mentioned in this article.

Picking up on a post by Panoply Digital Co-Director Ronda Zelezny-Green on the South Korean government mandating monitoring apps for youth in Android-based mobile technology, I wanted to extend that discussion a bit to demonstrate how pervasive this monitoring can be and particularly how it can be justified, or conceptualized, under appeals to public safety. The image (taken a week or so ago) helps to illustrates all of this a bit: a relatively empty subway car during rush hour on my way to work as most opted to stay home in light of MERS.

Before we plunge in, I think it is important to mention that South Korea is not alone in this surveillance. Clearly, this is an ongoing and altogether pervasive issue in many countries. Some are more overt about the process; some are more ubiquitous and, therefore, seemingly implicit. Essentially, the only real distinction becomes at what point in the process is online behavior affected: at the point of seeking (blocked content) or at the point of consuming (surveillance). There are many, much smarter than myself, who would be able to expand on these distinctions, but my point is this: using South Korea as a case study serves to illustrate not necessarily the uniqueness of their situation, but rather how culturally specific and nuanced security and surveillance can be.

So in Korea this has recently extended to mobile surveillance for the purposes of combating or controlling Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The South Korean government has announced that they will (and presumably have already started) monitoring those suspected of possibly coming into contact with MERS through mobile technology. Ostensibly the purpose is to ensure those under quarantine stay quarantined. Part of the difficulty that emerged from South Korean efforts to contain MERS resulted specifically from those suspected of being exposed to MERS deciding to break or ignore their own quarantine. So there are social dimensions, social dimensions flavored with cultural traits, that are affecting this emergency response. The South Korean government has bypassed these social constraints by simply tracking the phones of those they suspect of having or being exposed to MERS. I am not here to criticize that decision as seen from the perspective of disaster management. It may very well be the correct choice in light of the alternative; the unknown, untreatable elements of MERS are indeed cause for concern for all of us that live here (I am writing to you from Seoul). Yet, there are side effects in fields related to my own and Panoply work that we feel need championing. Privacy, freedom to learn, and freedom to socialize and exchange ideas; these freedoms are all strained with pervasive monitoring lacking transparency.

To begin, this monitoring of mobile activity is an implicit acknowledgement that such monitoring was indeed possible (on a person by person basis) and presumably already occurring. Neither of these acknowledgements are revelatory as technological advancements in GPS spell greater and greater surveillance. What this does spell in the Korean situation, itself at least partly prone to censorship, is how the balance between the rights to opportunity and safety, particularly in children, in mobile technology, and particularly as it applies to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is manifested. We see pervasive monitoring presented merely as an extension of parenting (Smart Sheriff is the name of the app that Ronda discussed) or as an appeal to public safety and order (the MERS mobile tracking), all logical (to some) extensions of the existing social construct and social contract. For a nation that is established in a particular hierarchy, made most evident through the myriad of social relationships that one must manage well beyond what we might experience in some countries (the US, the UK, etc.), this pervasive surveillance, while loathe to some, might be just a nuisance to others. Opinions vary, but the MERS situation accelerates these moves towards full surveillance and allows for greater reach and less oversight/transparency than ever before (truth be told, I am surprised they even announced their intentions to monitor MERS patients). Whether or not it is palatable is up to Koreans themselves.

What this does make clear for mobile learning or mobile for development work is the need, the absolute necessity, of not only localizing solutions, but acknowledging the social and cultural climate from which the technology itself emerged, from where the social practices emerged that governs its informal use, from where the legal and legislative practices emerged that more formally (and implicitly) governs its use, and whether or not the public is inclined to view this structure as palatable. If they find it acceptable, any solution becomes more a persuasive activity about public awareness and education to the dangers of overreach and surveillance. If I were to champion privacy and freedoms to learn and socialize free from monitoring in the Korean context, then I would begin with persuasion, education, or consensus building. If this monitoring proves less palatable in the local context, solutions can situate themselves in the existing activities of stakeholders to amplify their work. In the Korean context, I would aling my efforts with citizen watchdogs or advocacy groups already championing a freer, less monitored internet. If Koreans were increasingly frustrated with this monitoring and surveillance, as recent departures from KakaoTalk, the leading and home-grown messaging application, suggest) then I would seek to explore more secure and encrypted alternatives, such as Telegram. Yet, a solution that involves foisting a technology on an unwilling or unconvinced populace is more than worthless, it is condescending. Technologies are aggregations of social practices that are specific to the cultures from which they emerge; some are ambiguous enough to be useful beyond their country of origin. As those working in the development community, there is no excuse for not knowing the lay of the land and to know at which stage of awareness and activity a community is in regards to a perceived problem. Yes, I believe this type of surveillance is a problem; I also understand that this belief is toothless without a holistic understanding of the local context.

Share : Share on TwitterShare on LinkedinShare on GooglePlusShare on PinterestShare on Facebook


  1. What a pleasure to read your thoughts again Michael. I was wondering how you were coping in Seoul with the current MERS alert.
    The sudden increase of tech socialization based on medical necessity and adaptations of laws related to privacy, is very common as a reaction to a thread. Nevertheless, what I always wonder about is whether a ‘return to previous laws and customs’ is embedded in the new laws or guidelines. It seems impossible, even-though the start of such control is pushed by some medical or other event, the end is hardly planned nor realized. Nations learn, and integrate control, up to a point where most citizens are no longer aware, or as the article on surveillance via sheriff says: they get used to it and no longer care about being constantly monitored.
    Current tech evolutions point towards an increased digital/mobile tracking system, that in many cases will be linked to contextual laws. So is there a way back even if a medical alarm is revoked? Is there a way forward to a more autonomous, less controlled digital life? Or is surveillance the only future?
    Citizens are becoming less autonomous due to multiple changes (monitoring of movement, money, knowledge via filters and algorithms)… yet at the same time if you are part of the global elite you can in fact pass by that monitoring. You no longer have to pass by customs at airports, you do not need money, and knowledge can be obtained without censorship.
    To me, as long as Merkel or similar do not agree to live stream all of their data, something is miss with the surveillance and the data gathering procedures. For if surveillance is only needed to protect all of us, sharing it should be common good… or something like that. Back to chapter writing now…

  2. Hello there, Inge! Great to hear from you and indeed this was a little break from PhD writing. Still writing and revising as you are.

    As for your comments, the questions you ask are the important ones:

    “So is there a way back even if a medical alarm is revoked? Is there a way forward to a more autonomous, less controlled digital life? Or is surveillance the only future?”

    I fear the answer is no, that there aren’t any legal or social ways back to a time when surveillance wasn’t accepted. This is the slippery slope of change; once absorbed, a time before the change almost seems hard to imagine. And yes there are rewards of that in terms of access to information, mobility, etc. So it is a difficult balance to strike. I think if we can’t get them to stop surveilling, the only option is transparency as you say. Let everything be shared for everyone. Let people make their own decisions.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *