Some people, like Ms. Kim, paid a price. Online molesters referred to her as a "cougar," suggesting that she was using sex to proselytize a younger man. Others said that should the child become pregnant, they should undergo a paternity test. Officials in Busan City debunked the rumors but continued to spread online.
After her release, she filed complaints with a major web portal to remove the fake content. But after trying to follow dozens of blogs, she gave up. "There were too many of them," she said.
The global fight against the pandemic has raised privacy concerns in all countries. Governments including Italy, Israel and Singapore have used cell phone data to track potentially infected people and their contacts. China has deployed cell phone apps where little is known about how they track people. Venezuela has asked its neighbors to give up each other.
South Korea, a highly connected country where almost everyone has a smartphone, has taken these efforts a step further. In addition to disclosing some personally identifiable information, authorities sometimes use it to send text messages to people whose cellular data history indicates they are close to an infected person. According to Prof. Park, South Korea is practically the only country in the world besides China whose government is authorized to collect such data at will during an epidemic.
In the first desperate months of the pandemic, government websites uploaded a detailed sketch of each patient's daily life until they were diagnosed and isolated. The government did not disclose the names of the patients, but sometimes released insightful information such as addresses and employers.
This rush of data led to a growing culture of online harassment. In South Korea, doxxing – the digging up and disclosure of malicious personal information – was already a growing problem that was frequently cited in recent K-pop star suicides.
Restaurants visited by patients were sometimes treated as if they were cursed. Citing a patient's frequent visits to karaoke parlors, online trolls claimed she must be a prostitute. Gay South Koreans feared an excursion and urged the government to promise anonymity for tests after an outbreak broke out in a gay club in Seoul in May.