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[Opinion] Government Eavesdropping

Posted May. 19, 2006 03:05,   


Surprisingly, it was British jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham that initiated a prison with an incredible surveillance structure. In 1791, he designed a circular prison named the “Panopticon.” A round-shaped watchtower is placed in the middle, with cells created alongside the circumference of the outer circle. Inmates can see the others’ movements in the opposite cells, which enables a kind of autonomous surveillance. The inside of the watchtower is designed to be dark and the cells bright, making it impossible to figure out where the prison guards are looking at. Prisoners become so timid that they cannot move an inch.

Maybe French philosopher Michel Foucault might be right in predicting that a society like the “Panopticon” is bound to come true. Modern people are obsessed with what may be called a sense of victimization; they are always worried that someone might be looking into their communications secrets. Cell phone-based location tracking or an inquiry into one’s phone call record is routine; a telecommunications service provider can even restore an e-mail deleted by the user himself. Individuals, however, cannot even look into what is happening in a state agency chanting “national security and anti-terrorism.” Individuals are in a same position as bare-fisted “prisoners.”

Controversy is mounting over the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) searching phone call records of tens of millions of people in the name of “prevention of terrorism.” U.S. President George W. Bush explained, “It was to track down Al-Qaeda; the government did not listen in without warrants,” but the public anger is simply not subsiding. Congress hit back the remark by saying, “Are you saying tens of millions of people are involved in Al-Qaeda?” The controversy also put telephone companies Bell South and AT&T in trouble, as a class action suit has been filed against them, asking them to pay 200 billion dollars (approximately 200 trillion won) for infringing on the privacy of individuals.

In Korea, the Protection of Communications Secrets Act was legislated only after the 1992 eavesdropping scandal at the Chowon Shellfish Restaurant in Busan. What the law stipulates is very strict: recording and listening to personal conversations is prohibited, not to mention a public revealing of them; anyone violating the law is subject to a maximum of 10 years in prison. Even an intelligence agency can conduct wiretapping activities only when there is “a considerable danger to national security.”

The law and the reality, however, have been two different things, so ugly scandals over the intelligence agency’s eavesdropping activities have routinely occurred, including the “X-File” scandal of the Agency of National Security Planning (ANSP).

Even in the private sector, privacy infringements are happening on a daily basis. It might be only a matter of time that, as in the U.S., an astronomical amount of compensation will be claimed for privacy infringements in Korea as well.

Kim Chung-sik, Editorial Writer, skim@donga.com