Are massive tracking and personal data use/surveillance required to govern a pandemic, even for democracies?

In the wake of the novel Coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, South Korea was one of the hardest hit countries neighboring the epicenter of Wuhan, China. Since Patient Zero from China had been confirmed positive of the virus on January 20, 2020, the very acute and early response by the South Korean public health authorities kept the virus from spreading at the community level, until the Number 31 patient tested positive on February 17, 2020 in Daegu – one who had been associated with the religious sect ‘Shincheonji’ which had allegedly held a massive rally and religious worship event in Wuhan, China. The major cluster infection in Daegu changed the tide, jeopardizing the political fate of the Moon Jae-in administration with heavy criticisms. By March 5, 2020, a total of 1,469,023 petitions to impeach Moon Jae-in had been filed by South Korean citizens blaming the administration for not having blocked the border to the Chinese and insisting on keeping the South Korean border open.

As time went by, extensive and massive tracking, tracing prior to treatment and surveillance of the quarantined were continuously implemented nationwide by the South Korean authorities, with the  Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) at the helm. From March 22 to April 19, 2020, South Korea managed to flatten the curve by implementing extensive social distancing measures for four consecutive weeks. From April 1, punitive measures for breaking quarantine for both nationals and foreigners at ‘up to either 1,000 USD or up to 1 year in prison’ were implemented under the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act (Rules of the Act as amended during COVID-19 as of April 3, 2020). The social distancing period coincided with the campaign period for the April 15, 2020 National Assembly elections, and public opinion polls were heavily swayed by the administration’s performance in governing the pandemic. In the election held without postponement but in ultra hygiene-sensitive mode (fever checks, vinyl gloves, masks, and hand sanitizers at the polls), the incumbent party won by a landslide, largely due to the positive assessment by the South Korean public on the government’s efforts to control the pandemic, judging by the significant decline in the number of new and cluster infections. For South Korean voters, governance of the pandemic and provision of economic rescue packages proved more crucial than the North Korean missile tests that occurred on dates closer to the election. Voter turnout at 66.2 percent and a landslide victory almost made it seem as though a letter of indulgence had been given to the incumbent party by South Korean constituents, on multiple policy fronts where there had been shortcomings that simply could not be undone (i.e., economic downturn, failed rapprochement vis-à-vis North Korea, political scandals and former Justice minister’s prosecution, just to name a few).

What to make of the South Korean case on COVID-19

As the virus spread with an exponential increase in infections and deaths in Europe and the U.S., South Korea’s handling of the COVID-19 was lauded by the international community and the Moon administration has even come to promote a ‘K-Quarantine Model’ at the request of some 40 countries around the world. But what remains a crucial and critical debate is the degree of government intervention in fighting a pandemic, which entails government access to personal data in preventing the spread of the virus in high-speed and accuracy. In the case of South Korea, GPS cellphone records and credit card transaction history were the main sources of data, complemented by nationwide and local districtwide cellphone text alerts and mapping. Countries have come to question whether such surveillance measures would be a breach of individual freedom, and whether such measures are required to fight COVID-19 at the risk of limiting civil liberties in a democratic system.

What I would argue in this research project are three-fold:

1. The first is my answer to the above question, which is yes, sacrificing personal freedom for public health safety is required in governing a pandemic, even for democracies, if they will it. This is a matter of giving up in part individual freedom under peculiar circumstances to save human lives. This is a valuable lesson learned from South Korea’s failed measures in the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015 which resulted in 186 infections and 38 deaths, and the sinking of MV Sewol in 2014 in which 299 people died. In the case of South Korea, what bolstered the use of such AI-oriented measures was its reliance on extant technology: a) its heavily wired environment with 5G stations rolled out where 95% of South Koreans possess a cellphone; b) its credit card distribution rate at 64% (BIS, 2017), where 9 out of 10 South Koreans possess a credit card, with an average of 1.88 cards per person, with the caveat of fintech usage and provision rate under expansion but still at relatively lower levels; and c) its CCTV-surveillance throughout the country, which is overwhelming and big-brothery even for South Koreans, but is used for criminal investigation purposes. In March 2020, the Smart Management System (SMS) utilizing GPS cellphone data and credit card transaction data was developed by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) – or the COVID-19 Epidemic Investigation Support System (referred to by the KCDC), and enabled the expedition of epidemiological surveys and exhaustive search for new cases of infection, which were conducted entirely in manual fashion until then [Watch the full Smart Management System Briefing for the foreign press held on April 10, 2020]. According to the KCDC, the manual method would take at least a day for results to be obtained, while the SMS enabled the tracking in 10 minutes. Testimony by an official of the MOLIT has revealed that the ministry had already been working on a Smart City Application system covering all of South Korea, and that the SMS was launched based on a suggestion by an official that had been working on the Smart City Data Hub Technology at MOLIT. 

While countries in Europe may find different AI tools and come up with their choice of personal data other than the above used by South Korea that may serve the same purpose, the main issue that must be tackled in public discourse prior to implementation of such conditional AI-powered surveillance is what kind of a social contract they would like to have in their jurisdictions after COVID-19, which may immensely affect the success rate of social distancing in a scenario without lockdowns (as in the case of China and Russia) in controlling virus outbreaks and other public health crises in the future.

2. My second argument in this project is that there is so much more to what is required to govern a pandemic than merely ‘massive tracking’ and ‘surveilled quarantine measures’. This is evidenced by the South Korean list of patents, which embodies quality of healthcare (i.e., universal healthcare system, number of hospital beds and ventilators per population), which embodies production of protection and quarantine equipment, diagnosis tests, treatment and vaccine development, waste disposal, as well as big data analysis and computer aided drug screening, medical appliances. Of equal importance is an online retail system that ensures supply of household goods and foodstuffs and essentials to prevent panic buying and to keep public order.  

3. The final and core argument of this project is that successful governance of the pandemic cannot occur without concerted bureaucratic effort in the process. In the South Korean case, the V.I.P. (Presidency) has a critical say, as evidenced by the MOTIE’s relatively lower degree of discretion in final policy outcome, and the government agencies need to work in concerted effort, despite organizational conflicts and policy territoriality that may rest within the bureaucracy. The reason why it is questionable whether the South Korean case can be implemented across different jurisdictions is NOT only because data privacy is an issue in certain jurisdictions, but also because political decision-making processes and bureaucratic governance styles are very innate to every nation state and they vary. This is the bigger picture.

The analysis on economic recovery from COVID-19 and fiscal issues will be conducted as a follow-up project after at least a year has lapsed since the outbreak, possibly in 2021.

Here’s how the project would unfold, broken down into four main tasks:

  • Content Analysis of South Korean Data and Observation of Responses from Europe: Content analysis will be conducted based on South Korean government websites, government reports, press conferences, and research papers of the South Korean government institutions. Responses from other major economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) would be paid particular attention, notably of the European Union (EU), a region where data privacy is a critical issue. Notably, among OECD economies, responses to the South Korean governance of COVID-19 by France and Germany would be taken into account in this research, as there is a significant interest in the South Korean method in tackling COVID-19, in addition to the responses from the U.S. and Japan.
  • Dissemination through Peer-Reviewed Article Submission

June Park. ‘Governing a Pandemic with Data on the Contactless Path to Artificial Intelligence:Personal Data, Public Health, and the Digital Divide in South Korea, Europe in Tracking of COVID-19,‘ for submission to the special issue, COVID-19 and the Structural Crisis of Liberal Democracies: Determinants and Consequences of the Governance of Pandemic of the SCOPUS-indexed Italian academic journal, Partecipazione E Conflitto (PACO), to be edited by Luca Alteri (Sapienza Università di Roma; Istituto di Studi Politici “S. Pio V”), Louisa Parks (Università di Trento), Luca Raffini (Università di Genova) and Tommaso Vitale (Sciences Po, CEE). Italy was one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe and the intent of my submission of work is to foster cross-regional research collaboration with Europe. The abstract is to be submitted by September 30, 2020. If chosen for full paper peer-review and publication, the outcome would be available in Volume 14, No.1 of the journal in March 2021.

COVID-19 Project Timeline
Main Tasks
Main Goals
April 2020
-Research Design
-Data Collection
-Webinar Meetings
-Daily monitoring of KCDC Briefings
-Monitoring of MOHW and MOFE Briefings

May 2020

June 2020
SSRC Rapid Response Grant 
Application Submission

July 2020
Content Analysis
Data Visualization
Abstract Submission (9/30/20)
August 2020
September 2020
October 2020
Full Paper Draft (11/30/20)
November 2020
December 2020
Further updates

January 2021
Peer-Review (01/15/21) & Revision (02/15/21)
February 2021
March 2021


Training on COVID-19 Contact Tracing: Coursera Course taught by Dr. Emily Gurley, Johns Hopkins University

Presentation in Webinars as Speaker concerning South Korean Responses to COVID-19:

Participation in Webinars as Participant concerning South Korean Responses to COVID-19: