Under the law, the Korea Internet & Security Agency (KISA) mandates that all web addresses visited by foreigners are recorded in a database by their ISPs, as well as text of emails and SNS (Social Networking Service) messages on foreign sites like Twitter and Facebook. As a necessary legal disclaimer, KISA regularly reminds Internet customers that "the personal information of users is open to anybody who wants to take advantage of it", without specifically mentioning that 'anybody' in this context is mainly KISA itself. On its website, KISA says its goal is to "endeavor to make our country be reborn to a strongest country on internet and a safe advanced internet country... to work with our enthusiasm to build a road for people, who use internet, to enter into a warm and comfortable digital world."
It was envisaged that the foreigner tracking system – which works as part of the system which automatically blocks North Korean and other unpatriotic websites in South Korea, would lead to greater social harmony and digital world warmth in Korea by ensuring any unfortunate issues and misunderstandings experienced by non-Koreans could be dealt with. Korea's fourth ISP - Dokdo Internet - has not adopted the system yet due to regional autonomy agreements.
The foreigner tracking database - which is officially known as FITS (Foreigner Internet Tracking System) - was hugely successful in its first few years. Alongside a secret data-sharing agreement with VANK it allowed for the easy identification of foreigners who wrote critical blogs about the otherwise harmonious (South) Korean nation. VANK – which officially is a non-governmental organization even though it sits on several government and state security committees - then used the information to politely explain to the illogical foreigners the errors of their arguments. Such has been the persuasiveness of VANK's approach that the offending foreigners have always stopped writing their blogs or even left Korea due to the shame of realizing their error.
But now the number of foreigners in Korea is increasing so rapidly the Internet Service Providers are having difficulty maintaining the database, a problem due in part to the decision to use Microsoft Access as a basis for FITS. With more foreigners posting more things on SNS sites the volume of data collected has been growing exponentially, and the system has slowed down so much that recently VANK said that information requests on foreigners can take several hours to be fulfilled.
The ISPs are asking for more government funding to upgrade the database to the latest version of Microsoft Access, possibly even by buying it rather than using a Chinese-sourced copy, which some say has been amended to send information back to Beijing. Without the money, they say that the database is likely to reach capacity by the end of the year.
Recently, a group of professors at Seoul International University have called for the monitoring of what foreigners are saying to be extended to the telephone system in order to ensure that none of them are potential terrorists. It was feared that some non-Koreans were feeling discriminated against due to online monitoring by the Government, because although FITS was originally designated as a state secret, the Ministry of Public Manipulation and Insecurity – which ultimately overseas the system – neglected to inform the ISPs not to employ foreign IT contractors in the building of it. While the development of FITS was covered by commercial confidentiality agreements, its existence eventually leaked out due to the inherently untrustworthy nature of foreign workers, causing some irrational unhappiness among the foreign community in Korea, even though the system was built for their benefit.
The Government has said it will look closely at any request to develop a new version of FITS. Ministers are said to be keen on the idea of monitoring foreigners' phone calls, photos and location-based data in one unified system. However, other governments with highly extensive security regimes like China generally use more scalable non-Microsoft products to store their data, and after years of enforced Microsoft exclusivity in Korea it is believed that domestic IT workers lack the skills to build a new foreigner tracking database based on non-Microsoft systems.
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