What Can South Korea Tell Us About Digital Surveillance and Stigmatization?

Published May 28th, 2020 - 07:38 GMT
South Korea produces 100,000 COVID-19 test kits a day /AFP
South Korea produces 100,000 COVID-19 test kits a day /AFP

South Korea has been widely heralded as a country that has responded well to Covid-19. In terms of cases and deaths, it certainly has. With just over 11,000 cases and under 300 deaths the statistics compare favorably with other countries around the world. Much of this relative success has been attributed to digital medical surveillance. 

A contact-tracing app mixed with other methods of surveillance has been viewed as pioneering by many commentators. An app tracks the location of all new arrivals to South Korea and a mandatory bracelet is given to those who break quarantining rules. The bracelet seeks to track those attempting to get around the contact-tracing app by leaving their phone at home. 


“Smart Cities” have also been installed that allows authorities to monitor credit card transactions, travel information, and location data in order to keep tabs on Covid-19 patients. Artificial intelligence mechanisms are installed that can determine the movements of an individual in roughly ten minutes. 

However, the ability to track patients has led to a backlash against LGBTQ+ communities in South Korea. Many Covid-19 cases were tracked to nightclubs which were initially reported as “gay bars.” Online harassment and intimidation increased as members of the LGBTQ+ community were blamed for spreading the virus. 

“Smart Cities” have also been installed that allows authorities to monitor credit card transactions, travel information, and location data in order to keep tabs on Covid-19 patients.

Stephen Roberts, Fellow in Global Health at the London School of Economics, says that “traditionally homosexuality is stigmatized in South Korea in everyday settings. With all the fears and exceptionalism of a pandemic, all these behaviors are much more intensified.

As the fear of being stigmatized grows it becomes more and more likely that certain communities will be less willing to present themselves to health authorities for fear of being discriminated against. This comes down to the necessity for a degree of trust in governments when looking to deploy contact-tracing apps and other methods. 

Aside from all other highly important factors when looking at stigmatization through contact-tracing apps – not least mental and physical wellbeing, economic opportunities, and social cohesion – a rise in stigmatization will likely lead to more difficulties in stopping the spread of the virus as people from certain communities avoid testing.

Stephen Roberts says that “South Korea is an interesting case because it has been relatively successful in controlling its cases. They were running an efficient track-and-trace program. But I think what’s happening with the stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community is that it showed the societal, cultural, and political realities which are in countries and still need to be attended to aside from issues concerning the virus.”

I think what’s happening with the stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community is that it showed the societal, cultural, and political realities which are in countries and still need to be attended to aside from issues concerning the virus.

Many of the stigmas that arise are already present in countries before the presence of a new virus. South Korea, for example, has a long and difficult history with its own LGBTQ+ community which has fed the current rise in homophobic rhetoric. 

Nevertheless, South Korea provides a clear example to countries around the world to consider the societal and ethical implications of opting for high levels of digital surveillance methods and other means of tracking Covid-19. Greater levels of anonymization, for example, would be a key method to limit new groups facing backlashes during and after the current pandemic.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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