South Korea Is Giving Millions of Photos of all foreign travelers since 2019 to Facial Recognition Researchers

The South Korean Ministry of Justice has provided more than 100 million photos of foreign nationals who travelled through the country’s airports to facial recognition companies without their consent, according to attorneys with the non-governmental organization Lawyers for a Democratic Society.

While the use of facial recognition technology has become common for governments across the world, advocates in South Korea are calling the practice a “human rights disaster” that is relatively unprecedented.

“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,” six civic groups said during a press conference last week.

The revelation, first reported in the South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh, came to light after National Assembly member Park Joo-min requested and received documents from the Ministry of Justice related to a April 2019 project titled Artificial Intelligence and Tracking System Construction Project. The documents show private companies secretly used biometric data to research and develop an advanced immigration screening system that would utilize artificial intelligence to automatically identify airport users’ identities through CCTV surveillance cameras and detect dangerous situations in real time.

Shortly after the discovery, civil liberty groups announced plans to represent both foreign and domestic victims in a lawsuit.


Despite this pushback, the use of the technology is increasingly used in commercial spaces and airports. This holiday season, Delta Airlines will be piloting a facial recognition boarding program in Atlanta, following similar moves by JetBlue. US Customs and Border Protection is already relying on facial recognition technology in dozens of locations.

While the South Korean government’s collaboration with the private sector is unprecedented in its scale, it  is not the only collaboration of its kind. In 2019, a Motherboard investigation revealed the Departments of Motor Vehicles in numerous states had been selling names, addresses and other personal data to insurance or tow companies and to private investigators.

Source: South Korea Is Giving Millions of Photos to Facial Recognition Researchers

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