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[Editorial] Surveillance in its DNA

Top audit agency looked into mobile phone records of its entire senior staff

It was recently revealed that the Board of Audit and Inspection checked the mobile phone records of 31 high-ranking staff employees in early November last year, apparently to find the leaker of inside information.

A lawmaker of the main opposition People Power Party said in the National Assembly in October last year: “Word is going around that if Choe Jae-hae is appointed as chair of the board, a secretary in the presidential office will succeed a member of its council of commissioners (who is scheduled to retire in March this year). This is a tip-off from an insider of the board.”

Then, the board is said to have demanded the whole senior staff from secretary general down submit up to six months of call logs on their mobile phones. All of them reportedly followed the demand.

The operation to track down the leaker started a day after ruling and opposition parties agreed to confirm Choe‘s nomination as the board chair but before he was officially appointed.

The board says that the checking of phone records was instructed by its secretary general, not its chair, for the purpose of tightening work discipline.

But in the light of the content of the rumor, it is hard to rule out the possibility that there might be some kind of instruction from the presidential office. The reason cited by the board for checking phone records is less than convincing.

The communication data it looked into contained private calls as well as business ones. The board’s secretary general is said to have “asked” senior staff to submit phone records and argued that they did so voluntarily.

However, staff are likely to have submitted phone records for fear of being placed at a disadvantage in personnel matters down the road.

A demand for phone records, even if compliance was voluntarily, may have violated constitutional privacy rights and constituted an abuse of power.

This incident is also symbolic in that it exposes the level of the board’s political neutrality and independence. In view of the constitution and the board law, the agency is an independent top auditor of the government. But in reality, its independence is reduced to the extent that its entire senior staff had to submit their mobile phone records to get them checked because of a rumor that a presidential secretary may be appointed a board commissioner later. Among the staff was a spokesperson whose job involved communicating with journalists all the time.

Oppressive seizure of government employees’ mobile phones to look into their records has been commonplace since the early days of the Moon Jae-in presidency.

In late 2017, the Office of Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs effectively seized mobile phones of 10 senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, citing security necessity over news reports about the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a US antimissile system.

In the following year, Cheong Wa Dae told Ministry of Health and Welfare officials in charge of pension policy to submit their mobile phones shortly after news media revealed a national pension reform plan.

The Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials, touted by the Moon regime as the key part of its prosecution reform, secretly checked phone records of the presidential candidate and lawmakers of the opposition party, reporters and civilians.

In late 2018 when the Office of Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs was suspected of spying on civilians, Kim Eui-kyeom, then the Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson, said with a raised voice that the Moon administration has no DNA of surveillance. But indiscriminate secret check of phone records belies it. Measures to protect communication privacy look urgent.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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