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South Korea has ended contact tracing. Then what are QR check-ins for?

QR check-in`s are mandated at most public places in South Korea. (Yonhap)
QR check-in`s are mandated at most public places in South Korea. (Yonhap)

South Korea has switched to a do-it-yourself contact tracing scheme as the omicron variant changes how the outbreak is handled. And yet people are still required to scan personal QR codes that have so far allowed contact tracers to collect information about exactly where they visited and when.

Starting Monday, those who test positive for COVID-19 will need to contact trace themselves through an online questionnaire that asks where the last places they visited were, whether they live with anyone and where they work.

The QR codes, generated through mobile applications of IT firms like Naver and Kakao, contain personal information including name, phone number and vaccination status. Their use has been mandated at public places including cafes, restaurants and gyms since March last year with the goal of expediting contact tracing.

In response to press questions asking why QR check-ins were still necessary, Son Young-rae, the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s spokesperson, said during Tuesday’s briefing that the electronic contact tracing will remain in place for some time until a further decision is taken.

“The scope of the IT-based contract tracing will be determined after a review with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency,” he said. For now both systems -- self-reporting and QR tracing -- will run concurrently, he added.

Asked if there were any plans to abolish vaccine passes, which also rely on QR codes, Son replied, “That’s a separate matter.”

“The size of the surge Korea is seeing now renders contact tracing almost pointless. That makes collecting personal information with QR codes kind of unjustified,” noted Jang Young-ook, a researcher at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy studying pandemic response policies around the world.

In a previous interview with The Korea Herald, he had pointed out that the omicron response plan relieves the government of the responsibility for people’s sickness to a large degree, by restricting access to medical services and putting most patients at home to recover. “So in that sense, surveillance for the purpose of disease control and patient management that was so far tolerated would start to lose justification,” he said.

When QR check-ins first became mandatory here, human rights groups said that the digital contact tracing system raised privacy and mass surveillance concerns. “The use of such surveillance tools, even if they are for public health purposes, should be minimized where it can,” they said.

Suh Chae-wan of Lawyers for a Democratic Society’s Human Rights Defense Center had told The Korea Herald that “granting government access to personal data in itself is a threat to privacy protection.” “As the government relaxes control over the pandemic, the measures that limit rights and freedoms will need to be undone as well,” he said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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