On Daum Agora [* a mini-public sphere provided by Daum, the 2nd biggest Web portal of South Korea], there lived a Netizen called Minerva, who prolifically and quasi-regularly posted about the worsening economy of the world and what the Korean government would have to do to buffer domestic households against it. Under the pen name, he claimed to be an ordinary man in his late age, who is just keenly interested in following the current economic affairs and sharing his knowledge with fellow online users. He rightly predicted the US subprime mortgage crisis and the fall of the Lehman Brothers and warned his readership of expected consequences to Korea. He was also not shy about criticising the government when it cocked up. In fact, this nine-month-old government’s famous blueprint, “747 plan” (i.e. achieving a 7% annual growth in GDP as opposed to the below 5% during the previous administration, doubling the per capita annual income to $40,000, and making South Korea the world’s 7th largest economy, up from the current 11th place) became a nationwide joke that what the President had actually meant during his election campaigning was that he would drag the KOSPI (Korea Composite Stock Price Index) down to 747.
Minerva’s insightful posts attracted an increasing number of fans. Unsettled by this phenomenon, the government tried to find out who he really was, saying that this Minerva person spreads rumours and unjustifiably scares the public.
Finding him mustn’t have been difficult for them given the Internet real-name system operating in Korean cyberspace. In a nutshell, the system works like this. Your real name doesn’t have to appear in your posts, but if you want to post something on a site like Daum, you will have to log in. In order to log in, you will have to join the site first, and in the process of doing so, you will be required to provide your resident registration number, i.e. a unique 13-digit personal reference number given at birth by the state.
So, as you may well have guessed, it didn’t take them long. Today’s news articles cited the authorities revealing that Minerva was indeed a gentleman in his 50s with experience of having worked in the financial sector and having lived abroad. The authorities admitted that they *kind of* had to suss him out so that they could offer him better data he could draw upon. Awww.
Who could blame him when he put up another post after a while of silence saying that it would be his last and he is now breaking his pencil (or keyboard in this case?!)? I know I don’t.
The national DNA database? ID cards for foreigners? The naivety of those who say, “Well, if you haven’t done anything wrong, why would you be afraid?” worries me. I am not even talking about a possibility of the system falling into some evil hands like in some sci-fi films. Once the surveillant databases are established and implemented, how would we define who’s allowed to access, when and under what circumstances? Would it be ever possible that the definition convinces and satisfies all relevant parties? Besides, what I personally fear most based on my experience and observation is not the surveillance and control that such schemes would facilitate but the desensitisation of the people subject to them. You would be surprised how easily Korean people these days give away their resident registration numbers whenever requested. Well, now let me be fair here: of course, people wouldn’t have expected the government to turn the clock backwards to a time, say 30 years ago, when the arbitary retrieval of citizens’ personal information was everyday practice.
One thing I have been consciously doing is to keep this blog subdued and lighthearted. I think I’ve failed today.