South Korea promises more privacy as it tracks contacts of new coronavirus cases

Click to play video 'Coronavirus outbreak: South Korea authorities looking at mobile phone data, credit cards to trace possible COVID-19 infections' Coronavirus outbreak: South Korea authorities looking at mobile phone data, credit cards to trace possible COVID-19 infections
South Korean authorities said on Tuesday they have been combing through mobile phone data and credit card statements, as well as CCTV footage, in an effort to trace those who recently visited nightclubs and may have been infected due to COVID-19 exposure. More than 100 cases have been linked to nightclubs in Seoul, which is at the centre of one of the capital's biggest cluster of new cases – May 12, 2020

South Korean health authorities said on Thursday they would revise their practice of publicizing the travel routes of coronavirus patients due to fears of a backlash against people who attended nightclubs at the center of a new outbreak.

After weeks of nearly no new domestic coronavirus cases, South Korea has seen a new spike in infections centered around nightclubs and bars in some of Seoul’s most popular nightlife neighborhoods.

Investigators have struggled to find around 2,000 people wanted for testing, an effort complicated by public criticism of the clubgoers, as well as concerns about discrimination as several of the clubs cater to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

READ MORE: South Korea sees spike of 34 new coronavirus cases after outbreak involving nightclubs

While clubs and bars were required to log the names and contact phone numbers for all visitors as a condition of reopening, much of the information turned out to be incomplete or false, officials said.

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That has left officials combing through cellphone location data and CCTV footage to try to identify some customers, while publicly pleading for people to come forward and be tested.

Officials say they understand some individuals may fear social stigmatization, and have promised to try to reduce the amount of information usually released about confirmed patients.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus outbreak: Contact tracing – weighing privacy vs. public health' Coronavirus outbreak: Contact tracing – weighing privacy vs. public health
Coronavirus outbreak: Contact tracing – weighing privacy vs. public health – May 10, 2020

South Korea has typically released information like a patient’s age, gender, and places visited immediately before testing positive, as well as in some cases, patients’ last names and general occupations.

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About 2,000 people are still being sought by officials.

“The health and quarantine authorities have expanded anonymous testing nationwide to prevent unnecessary violations of privacy,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said at a meeting of health authorities on Thursday, according to his office.

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“In addition, we plan to revise the guidelines to prevent excessive disclosure of a patient’s travel itinerary.”

READ MORE: Some countries that reopened saw upticks in COVID-19 cases — what can Canada learn?

People who ignore calls to be tested can face a fine of up to 2 million won ($1,630), health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing.

South Korea reported 29 new cases as of midnight Wednesday, bringing the country’s total to 10,991 with 260 deaths.

Of those new cases, 20 were linked to the outbreak from the clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood. A total of 131 cases have been linked to that outbreak, including clubgoers as well as secondary infections in family members, coworkers, and students.

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Privacy concerns raised from contact tracing – May 11, 2020

In one case, a young man who visited a club is accused of not disclosing his work at a school in the nearby city of Incheon.

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After officials used cellphone data to discover his workplace, they confirmed at least 11 related infections, including among the man’s students.

That case has also led to 1,700 people in Incheon being tested and quarantined after some of the students went to church on Sunday.

READ MORE: South Korea experts say ‘reinfected’ coronavirus cases appear to be false positives

The cluster of infections in Itaewon and other nightlife spots came as the country was easing social distancing guidelines, and the cases led to public criticism of both the clubgoers as well as health officials who allowed the clubs to reopen.

“I think the authorities missed these venues,” said Kim Dong-hyun, president of Korean Society of Epidemiology. “They had grounds to suspend operations of the facilities earlier, but it’s unclear why they didn’t.”

South Korean media reported that some of the restaurants and other businesses in Itaewon have had to stop trading for the first time in 20 years, and some taxi drivers are refusing to take passengers to or from the neighborhood.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith; Editing by Stephen Coates)