Korean Facial Recognition Project Faces Opposition

It was discovered last month that a South Korean government project has been providing millions of facial images taken at Incheon International Airport to private industry without the consent of those photographed. Several civic groups called this a “shocking human rights disaster” in a 9 Nov press conference, and formally requested that the project be cancelled. In response, the government has only promised that “the project would be conducted at a minimum level to ensure personal information is not abused”. These groups are now planning a lawsuit to challenge the project.

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 program itself wasn’t secret, and had been publicly announced back in 2019. But the project’s scope and implementation weren’t made clear until a lawmaker recently requested documents on the project from the responsible government agencies. The system, called the Artificial Intelligence and Tracking System Construction Project, was a pilot program set to run until 2022. Its goals were to simplify the security and immigration screening of passengers, improve airport security, and to promote the local AI industry in South Korea. If the project proves successful, the plan is to expand it to other airports and ports in the country.

Current systems at the airport do one-to-one facial recognition. For example, they try to determine whether the face of the person presenting a passport matches the photo in the passport. The goal of this new project was to develop one-to-many matching algorithms, which can match one face against the plethora of faces in an airport, track the movement of a face within the airport, and flag “suspicious” activities which could be a security concern.

The groups protesting the project note that the collection and sharing of these images without the travelers’ consent is prohibited by the Personal Information Protection Act, the South Korean law which governs such things. Under this act, a project like this would ordinarily require consent of the participants. But the government’s interpretation relies on an exception in the act, specifically, Article 15 Section 3, which states:

A personal information controller may use personal information without the consent of a data subject within the scope reasonably related to the initial purpose of the collection

Basically they are saying that since the images were collected at the security and immigration checkpoints, and that the project will be using them to improve the security and immigration checkpoints, no consent is required.

  • Foreigners: 120 million individuals, face image, nationality, gender, age
  • Korean citizens: 57.6 million individuals, face image, nationality, gender, age
  • Other: unknown number of individuals, images and videos of atypical behavior and travelers in motion

The breakdown of the numbers above reveals that 57 million Korean citizens are in the data set, a bit surprising to many since the collection of biometric data on Korean citizens at immigration is prohibited by law. The project circumvented this by only collecting data from citizens who participate in the automated Smart Entry service, a voluntary program which uses fingerprints and facial recognition. It’s interesting to note that the number of passengers using Incheon airport since May 2019 (the program was announced 30 Apr 2019) is only 62 million, so the average passenger appears approximately three times in the data set.

Are there any similar programs in your region? How do they handle the issue of consent, if at all? Let us know in the comments below.

[Banner image: “Customer uses facial recognition as identification at TSA security checkpoint” by DeltaNewsHub, CC BY 2.0  — Yes, it’s from another country with similar problems, but much less public outcry. Discuss in the comments!]

20 thoughts on “Korean Facial Recognition Project Faces Opposition

  1. The irony is, that sort of system has been in place in several countries for quite a while. Just walking through a high street in a busy town or city and you’re tracked on CCTV. Some places are also using gait tracking and the use of AI to spot u usual movements or even identify weapons and ship lifters automatically. The general public might be aware of the presence of cameras but my guess would be, they’d find it shocking if they knew the scope and utilities available.

      1. While apparently I’m an idiot, my doorbell camera and external camera systems are there for the protection of my property. I bought units that do not require a fee to store or access the system data, so I don’t spend money to do it. But to have peace of mind and know when someone is at my door or property is worth it to me.

        There’s a world of difference between a camera at my door and a stand up photo taken at an airport though.

        Genie is out of the bottle, and you’ll never convince those of us that use doorbell and security cameras to give them up.

        1. Recently an accident happened and when I called to police the first thing they asked was if I had a doorbell camera installed… scary this was in NL. The same NL where next to cctv also audio is recorded in public transport (ret trams), without notification to the public (not sure its still in use)

          1. Pretty much all busses and trains have CCTV and audio recordings 24/7. It only takes one malicious person to watch the feed and start blackmailing people or worse. If you’re on a train, you’re not home.

        2. The main issue with the “doorbell” dummies is that they are paying to augment somebody else’s for-profit surveillance program. Which is then being sold to… erm…. well we’re not sure who is getting access to that.

          Using regular security cameras (even if they also look like doorbell), without exporting data to a 3rd party is much less of an issue.

        3. Your “piece of mind” is not worth the incredible violation of privacy, and the maintenance of a tool that directly contributes to oppression…

          Your lack of understanding is a big part of the problem.

          1. @Shannon

            I’ll just start you off with a couple of obvious pieces.

            How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities:

            Mass Surveillance Fuels Oppression of Uyghurs and Palestinians:

            You can drop “cctv oppression” in to Google and read many other stories/articles/papers on surveillance directly contributing to oppression.

  2. In other words, the vendor either has you by the balls or your equipment simply stops working when they inevitably run out of money or find that they can make a pretty penny with all that data traffic they’re just giving away for free.

      1. Yes, it does. Temporarely allowing hackady.co,, wordpress.com and wp.com makes it work correctly, but it’s annoying…

        I wont comment on the article, it’s so sad and scary all this surveillance and all these people who are not worried about. :-(

  3. Human and civil rights are being rapidly and systematically eroded across the globe at the moment and people need to wake up before they are so constrained that they can’t even act to restore their lawful rights when government decides that they have a reason to ignore them. Take a look at Australia if you want an example of how far and fast an apparently free and egalitarian society can fall into the hands of tyrants if people are not vigilant.

    1. At least AU has a “proper” “official” “honest” government ads channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/thejuicemedia ;-)

      Jokes aside – I stumbled over that channel sometime in the last 1-2 years and I can’t really guesstimate how factual or misleading it is but it seems to me AU is even worse (off) than the DSA (in terms of lobbying, political fuck ups and so on).
      And they covered EU bullshit a few times to (I recall some Internet “fuckery”) – kudos!

  4. Biometric data is literally intended to be “Personally Identifying”.

    The whole idea is a giant exercise in double-think.

    “Facial Recognition” isn’t trying to recognize what a person wants for lunch. The whole POINT is to recognize WHO that person IS. We have a phrase for that…

    Spends the hours between X-Y at location (work)
    Spends night time at location Z (lives/sleeps)
    Wears size 34-34 jeans
    Drives [make][model][year] vehicle
    Purchases [food] at [restaurant] every other Tuesday
    Has prescription for [medication] for [condition]
    Traveled to [country] by [airport] on [date]
    Returned on [date]
    And on
    And on…

    That sounds pretty”Identifying” to me even if it doesn’t include a name or SSN.

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