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Rights groups demand halt to South Korea facial recognition surveillance project

Fallout from government data sharing continues
Rights groups demand halt to South Korea facial recognition surveillance project

A project intended to develop an artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition system to be used for airport immigration purposes, spearheaded by South Korea’s Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Science and Information and Communication Technology, has met with fierce criticism from civil rights groups and opposition politicians in the country.

Hani reports that work on the face biometrics identification and tracking system has been ongoing since 2019 but further concern has been sparked by reports that the government handed over at least 170 million face photographs of Koreans and foreigners to a private company to train AI algorithms for the surveillance system.

The fear is that the biometric information of those concerned could be compromised and their privacy rights violated.

As a consequence, some six rights groups including People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, and the Institute for Digital Rights, have called on the government to halt the facial recognition project, arguing that it violates the country’s Personal Information Protection Act as well as international human rights norms.

Speaking during a recent press conference in Seoul, reports Hani, the groups lambasted the move, calling it “a devastating infringement” on privacy rights.

“Facial information and other biometric data aren’t easily altered and are unique to the individuals concerned. If this data were to be leaked, it would constitute a devastating infringement upon their privacy. It’s unheard of for state organizations — whose duty it is to manage and control facial recognition technology — to hand over biometric information collected for public purposes to a private-sector company for the development of technology,” the groups were quoted as saying during the briefing.

Further supporting their argument on why the project is dangerous for Koreans, they drew this example: “The U.S. and the EU view AI facial recognition as a dangerous technology and have recently been developing measures to regulate remote monitoring systems that make use of biometric information. Civil society is waiting to hear a responsible answer from the Ministry of Justice that includes halting the project [to build] the AI identification and tracking system and the development of follow-up measures.”

As part of their efforts to see this project reversed, Hani notes that the groups have sought an audience with the Justice Minister to further make known their position.

Meanwhile, the Minister is reported to have earlier given assurances during a parliamentary audit that the project will be conducted in a way that will not compromise citizens’ personal information.

South Korea’s Personal Information Protection Commission in August slammed a heavy fine on Facebook for violating facial recognition consent rules. The Commission has yet to weigh in on the government’s indiscriminate biometric data-sharing.

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