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Authorities emphasize personal information protection in big data virus tracker

Korea built social consensus prioritizing public health after MERS outbreak, says Land Ministry official


South Korean authorities said Friday that the country’s latest tracker enabling epidemiological surveys in just 10 minutes does not compromise the personal information and privacy of COVID-19 patients or people in self-quarantine.

Using big data and artificial intelligence, the virus tracker known as the “COVID-19 smart management system” allows health investigators to immediately obtain the data of those being surveyed, receive analysis on virus clusters and identify likely sources of infection.

The system was jointly developed by the Land Ministry, the Ministry of Science and ICT and the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in two weeks, and was put into use from March 26.

“The system is not used for every confirmed virus patient. It is utilized when deemed necessary by epidemiologists. … The same goes for people in self-quarantine,” said Park Young-jun, director of epidemic investigation at the Central Disaster Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.

His comments were made during an online briefing on the system arranged by the Land Ministry and the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He added that those being surveyed are notified of the government’s access to their personal information in interviews with government officials, while credit card companies issue a separate notification.

The system utilizes surveyee’s GPS records and credit card transactions for epidemiological surveys, ultimately reducing the time it takes for epidemiological surveys to 10 minutes from the previous 24 hours, authorities said.

A total of 28 public and private organizations -- the National Police Agency and Credit Finance Association, along with several mobile carriers and credit card companies -- are working in coordination to expedite contact tracing.

On the issue of keeping a fine balance between public health and personal information, Lee Ik-jin, director of Urban Economy Division at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportwent said “a social consensus prioritizing public health and safety was formed in Korea after the 2015 MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak.“

The consensus prompted lawmakers to revise the Infectious Disease and Control Act on the collection, usage and disposal of personal information, which also includes multiple layers of protection to ensure personal data and privacy are not infringed.

Asked if the Korean government plans to share the system with other countries, Lee went on to say it is willing to do so provided that countries seeking cooperation meet certain conditions.

“There is an African proverb that I like, which is ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ As countries worldwide struggle with COVID-19, if progress can be made using our technology, we would like to share it,” Lee said.

“But as much as we would like to share the system with countries around the globe, given that it integrates various personal data, legal basis or preconditions will have to be considered first.“

By Kim Bo-gyung (