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Controversy rekindled over when to name criminals, suspects

Experts voice opposition to private disclosures amid calls for clearer, comprehensive standards from authorities and in law

May 12, 2024 - 14:36 By Lee Jung-joo
Choi, a medical student suspected of having stabbed his girlfriend to death in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, is taken to the Seoul Central District Court to attend his arrest warrant hearing, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Concerns surrounding the disclosure of the personal information of convicted criminals and those suspected of having committed crimes have been mounting in South Korea, sparked by the recent revival of a name-and-shame website known as "Digital Prison," around four years after it was shut down by South Korean authorities.

The debate was triggered by the unauthorized release of the personal details of a 25-year-old man surnamed Choi, who is accused of stabbing his girlfriend to death on top of a building in the densely populated Gangnam district of Seoul on May 6 at around 5 p.m. Local reports suggested that Choi has admitted to planning the crime.

Choi's personal information, including his full name, photos, university entrance exam scores, the medical school he was accepted into and social media accounts, rapidly spread across the internet, with Digital Prison pinpointed as the originating platform.

Following the release of Choi's personal information on Wednesday, Digital Prison published more posts containing the information of several other criminals and those suspected of having committed crimes. These include the personal information of a YouTuber in his 50s who allegedly stabbed a fellow YouTuber near the Busan District Court on Thursday morning on live stream.

Following these recent controversies surrounding Digital Prison, the Korea Communications Standards Commission will convene a committee meeting on Monday to decide whether to shut down the website.

Digital Prison, which emerged in June 2020, garnered attention for disclosing the personal details of convicted criminals as well as anyone suspected of having committed a crime -- whether officially accused and charged or not, as long as there is "sufficient evidence" -- that are usually inaccessible to the public.

The platform was shut down after a 20-year-old university student, falsely accused of manipulating his acquaintances' photos into pornographic content, tragically took his own life in September 2020. His personal information, including his photo, school details, major and phone number, had been plastered across Digital Prison.

Following his death, police officials at the time apprehended the operator of the website in Vietnam with assistance from Interpol in September 2020.

The operator, who faced charges including violating the Personal Information Protection Act, was sentenced to four years in prison in December 2021.

The Digital Prison website (Digital Prison's website)

The disclosure of the personal information of people suspected of having committed a crime is governed through the Act on the Disclosure of Personal Information of Specific Serious Crimes. The police have maintained their stance that they will punish sternly those who publicly disclose the personal information of criminals, suspects, victims and other third parties, that has not gone through an official review process for possible defamation.

However, the operator of Digital Prison, whose identity has not yet been confirmed, stated on the website, "We felt that now is a good time to bring back Digital Prison, so we’ve restored most of our earlier data that was previously taken down."

The notice also read, “Because we are not in Korea and our servers are located overseas, your submissions will be safe (from being charged or tracked by officials). If you know more about the criminals’ identities, please send any information you have to our email address or through Telegram.”

With the reemergence of the Digital Prison website, concerns regarding the appropriateness of disclosing the personal information of criminals and suspects through private channels have come to the fore in South Korea.

Some argue that releasing criminals’ personal information online can act as a tool that shames criminals, thereby deterring others from committing similar crimes.

Other internet users have commented that websites like Digital Prison are their only hope, as “there are currently too many problems in the legal system.”

But lawyer Huh Joo-yeon from the New Wave Law Firm emphasized that unauthorized disclosures of the personal information of those who are convicted or suspected of having committed crimes through private channels should be banned due to the adverse ramifications, including the potential for innocent people to be wrongly accused.

"I understand the retaliatory sentiment of wanting to show that if someone commits such wrongdoing, they will somehow face the consequences and suffer disadvantages including having their face publicly exposed," Huh said during her interview with South Korea's broadcaster YTN on Saturday.

"However, if someone's personal information is leaked privately, there are also chances that they are not a perpetrator. In such cases, the resulting damage cannot be easily rectified," she stressed.

But Huh also called upon South Korean authorities to investigate why this trend of the public disclosing convicted criminals' or suspects' personal information persists, as it seems to result from the legal framework not being sufficiently comprehensive.

Huh added that it is important to strengthen the requirements behind disclosing public information about criminals to make the process more “thorough, reasonable and clear.”

“It is important to think about why the public is resorting to disclosing criminals’ identities on their own (instead of waiting for the authorities to disclose it),” said Huh.

“When officials decide not to disclose the criminals’ identities, I believe it would be helpful for public understanding of their decisions for a clear explanation to be provided.”

The police have decided not to convene a Personal Information Disclosure Committee on Choi to discuss whether to reveal his information and identity, though a clear reason has not yet been given.

South Korea's approach to releasing the personal information of criminal suspects is relatively recent. It was only during this past January that the implementation of what is widely known as the "mug-shot law" -- within the Act on the Disclosure of Personal Information of Specific Serious Crime Suspects, under Article 4 of the Disclosure of Personal Information of Suspects -- took effect.

This law allows the public to access information such as the name, age and recent photo of individuals charged with a crime, following a decision by the committee on whether the information can be disclosed.

Others argue that it can cause unforeseen harm, such as releasing the victims’ identities and those of other people unrelated to the crime.

The photos and personal information of convicted criminals and those suspected of having committed crimes are posted on Digital Prison. (Digital Prison’s website)

As Choi’s personal information began to circulate on the internet, the personal information of the victim, Choi’s parents and Choi’s high school teacher also began to spread.

One social media user, claiming to be the sister of the victim of the homicide on May 6, wrote a comment asking people to refrain from spreading false information and making assumptions about the victim and her relationship with Choi.

“Our family is currently in a lot of pain. We’ve tried to delete my sister’s account to stop the spread of her identity and photos so that she can rest in peace, but we have been unable to do so due to an unforeseen error,” wrote the user.

Some experts, however, argued that merely posting someone's photos and personal information does not necessarily fulfill the criteria for defamation.

“Just posting photos of someone is not enough to say that that amounts to a crime (of defamation),” lawyer Oh Sun-hee from Law Firm Hyemyung said to The Korea Herald.

“To be seen as defamation, it must clearly have a slanderous purpose and there must be a way to prove that the general social opinion of the criminal has been impaired based solely on the photos."