Opinion
[Editorial] Privacy of phone calls
Bill to ban recording of phone calls triggers disputes about privacy, whistleblowing
Published : Sep 14, 2022 - 05:30
Updated : Sep 14, 2022 - 05:30

A number of South Koreans opt for smartphones made by Samsung Electronics, rather than those by its US rival Apple for mainly two killer apps. One is Samsung Pay, a mobile payment service, and the other is a built-in call recorder. Both functionalities are not available on iPhones.

That may change as local media have reported that Apple is reportedly preparing to launch its own mobile pay service here in partnership with a local credit card firm, effectively removing one reason to buy Samsung phones. More importantly, the second reason -- an automatic recording of all phone calls if the user activates the function -- may evaporate, too.

The removal of the widely used call recording feature would deal a blow not only to Samsung, but also to many local users who rely on the mobile call recorder to defend themselves in unfair situations, such as verbal abuse by their bosses or sexual harassment by customers over the phone.

Why the fuss over phone call recordings all of a sudden? The dispute was sparked last month when a group of the ruling People Power Party lawmakers led by Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun proposed a bill banning the recording of phone calls and conversations without the consent of everyone taking part.

Shockingly, the bill would put those who violate the law in prison for up to 10 years, an undisputedly harsh punishment given that the practice is widespread across Korean society, including the political circles.

In fact, in 2016, Yoon found himself at the center of a high-profile scandal over his controversial comment that was recorded and made public later. Due to the disclosed phone recording, he suffered critical damage to his reputation as well as political standing. Yoon said the past incident has nothing to do with the proposed bill.

Thanks to the explosive nature and far-reaching impact of the bill, proponents and opponents are raising their voices, while Yoon said he would submit a revised proposal soon.

Those who favor the bill argue that the current law allowing anyone to record phone calls without consent should be revised in a way that both parties should agree to the recording to protect privacy and block blackmailing based on illicit recordings. The practice itself is also compromising people’s dignity and right to pursue happiness specified in the Constitution, the ruling party lawmakers claimed.

In a policy discussion last week, Yoon argued that banning the recordings will help reduce unnecessary political spats. Indeed, some of the phone conversations politicians exchanged with their peers or other people have long been exposed, touching off political scandals and showing many of those involved in a negative light.

However, whether keeping such bad conversations undisclosed is good for the political circles and the public may depend on how one views the pros and cons of phone recordings.

The proposed bill is now inviting plenty of critical responses from people in various sectors, including journalists who rely on the recording of phone calls daily and those in other sectors. Critics also pointed out that banning the phone call recordings will wipe out the key tool for underdogs to report irregularities and verbal abuse, which are now often used as effective evidence in court.

The possibility itself that one’s conversation over the phone may be recorded makes people take a more cautious stance and think twice before making potentially controversial comments.

Nonetheless, there are also risks that reckless recording of phone calls and private conversations might be abused at a time when voice cloning technology is making rapid progress and digital solutions based on individual voices are being rolled out.

For instance, it is fairly common for call centers of any kind to notify callers that their conversations might be recorded for improving service quality. But there is no specific law that governs how companies store and handle such voice data, much less a regulation that blocks unauthorized resale of such recorded voice files to a third party.

Latest opinion polls show that respondents tend to favor some limitations on the recording of private conservations on the phones, and penalties rather than an imprisonment of up to 10 years for violations, as proposed by Yoon and other lawmakers.

Given that phone call recordings have merits and demerits in Korean society, lawmakers should invest enough time to collect the public’s opinions and consider all possible aspects that could reshape how people interact over the phone.



By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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