Korea faces digital footprint dilemma

On Wednesday, South Korean consumer rights activists filed a lawsuit at a Seoul court demanding that Google Korea disclose whether the IT behemoth shared its users' personal data with outside parties.

The suit follows a January government fine of 200 million won (S$242,000) levied on Google for collecting personal information such as Internet IDs, passwords, and resident registration numbers.

The suit is also in line with a global trend that has landed in South Korea in recent years: protection of personal information floating online, or what are popularly known as digital footprints.

Europeans addressed their own concerns over digital footprints and personal privacy management earlier when European courts dealt Google a series of fines.

France and Spain have imposed financial penalties for Google's privacy policy change made in 2012. Wednesday's suit involves the same change applied to Korean users.

Google had combined personal data from its array of online services such as YouTube, Google Plus and Gmail without adequately notifying users of the policy change's purpose and its implications, according to European watchdog groups.

British and Dutch authorities are also looking to Google. On Tuesday, a regulator in Rome gave the search engine 18 months to comply with local rules.

Koreans have also reacted to similar digital footprint cases playing out in the US, the country that hosts the world's largest private information holders, including as Amazon, Google and Facebook.

After a US scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, last month announced the findings of an "emotional" experiment on Facebook, the American media rose up in fury.

Conducted among 689,003 Facebook users by a research team for the social networking site, the experiment had apparently manipulated peoples' emotions according to critics. They charged the SNS company of transforming users into "laboratory guinea pigs."

Facebook randomly increased or decreased the number of positive and negative comments each user could see when he or she logged on to Facebook over a weeklong period in early 2012. Researchers then measured the change in the user's mood by counting how many "positive" and "negative" comments he or she subsequently posted.

A number of US media outlets criticised the social media giant over the experiment. But Forbes reported "Facebook's experiment sounds creepier than it was."

Facebook offered an explanation after the media uproar.

"The goal of all our research at Facebook is to learn how to provide a better service. Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone," Adam D. I. Kramer, one of the participating researchers, wrote on June 30.

But criticism against Facebook was not limited to those in North America.

"What if the negative mood swing was the last blow to a depressed user who later committed suicide?" the Hankyoreh, a South Korean newspaper, wrote this week.

"Experiments like that must stop," a South Korean blogger wrote.

"Facebook has become the world's largest personal information protection bank. It would be disastrous to have a place like that become a huge lab. What if Facebook starts selling its experiment results to other companies … without our knowing it?"

The digital footprint in mobile devices is a topic that sparks heated debates, as people pack so much personal information into their tablets and smartphones.

Last month, the US Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officials could not search suspects' smartphones without warrants except in emergencies.

Smartphones are now so prevalent that a Martian would think the minicomputers were part of the human body, US Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote in his landmark June 25 ruling.

Because smartphones now also contain vast amounts of personal information, authorities should be required to attain warrants before searching smartphones, Roberts added.

The ruling could have implications in South Korea, one of the world's most wired countries, and home to smartphone goliath Samsung Electronics and popular mobile chatting apps such as Kakao Talk and Line.

A massive amount of private messages, photos and video files are uploaded daily via such mobile apps to the servers of the operators, but some users express concerns about how tightly their data is protected against cyberattacks or whether the data might be disclosed as a result of police investigations.