By Park Si-soo
Many Internet users have recently become unlicensed detectives in an "investigation squad" they have formed. Members of the squad, called "NCSI" ㅡ a combination of "N" from netizen and "CSI", which stands for a crime scene investigation team in the United States ㅡ hardly get together off-line or conduct joint inquiries.
Some Internet-savvy people initiated the group in a move to identify celebrities in the media limelight due to scandals or criminal acts.
The local media's longtime practice of identifying these people mostly by their surname or an alias to avoid litigation is largely attributable to the emergence of NCSI, which has sometimes disclosed wrongdoings that would otherwise have remained unreported.
But their action also raises concern that uncontrolled information collecting through Web surfing and the reckless distribution of information about specific people can be considered an invasion of privacy.
An ongoing legal battle between popular actor Lee Byung-hun
and his former girlfriend may be a good example.
The 22-year-old female gymnast filed a lawsuit against the actor early this month, alleging the actor had conned her into bed under the false promise of marriage and then dumped her.
As the petition is based on one-sided allegations about a private love affair, the Seoul Central District Court did not provide detailed information to reporters, and media outlets have churned out reports with limited information about the petitioner, including her surname, profession and personal background.
Days after the filing, most Korean-language portals and popular Web sites were inundated with private information and even some photos of the petitioner, identified as Kwon. Articles she posted on her blog on the social network Web site MySpace and photos of her with friends and family have been made public by some NCSI members.
One netizen bragged, "Based on the information that Kwon used to be a member of the Canadian national gymnastics team, I found some photos of her on English-language Web sites".
Kwon's case is not an anomaly.
Just a month ago, a female student guest on a TV talk show also fell prey to cyber stalking after her comment humiliating "short men" on a TV program created a stir on the Internet.
On KBS2 TV's talk show "Misuda" (Beauties' Chatterbox), Lee Do-kyung of Hongik University, said, "Height is a measure of competitiveness of men. I think a man who is short is a loser". She said a dating partner for her should be at least 180 centimeters tall.
Just days after the comment, everything about her, including her notes, blogs and photos and academic background, were spread on the Internet. Unable to withstand negative comments online, she temporary withdrew from school, according to one of her close friends.
According to a 31-year-old man who describes himself as an NCSI member, digging detailed private information up is possible on the Internet with basic information such as a name, e-mail address or alma mater of a specific figure.
"We can collect additional information by searching portals", said the Web surfer. "If we find a specific ID the person uses to log into a Web site, we can trace hundreds of activities the person has conducted. It's not difficult. Anyone who can surf the net can do it too".
He said he was able to find photos of the Hongik student, which appeared to have been taken when she was in high school, by tracing one of her IDs.
But these practices don't always go against the public interest. Sometimes, they play a pivotal role in shedding light on wrongdoing that would otherwise remain covered up.
The first suspicions over a paper publishing manipulated photos on stem cell research by disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo-seok was raised by a group of netizens versed in photo manipulation.
In 2004, NCSI also detected Seoul National University students' collective move to increase their private tutoring fees and made information on the leaders of the movement public. The revelation drew criticism from people on and off-line and consequently led to the freezing of the fees.
Prof. Chung Wan of Kyunghee University's college of law said members of NCSI could be punished in cases where their revelations obviously damage a specific figure.
"Whether or not a person did anything wrong, making private information public is illegal", the professor said.