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Digital contact tracing in the pandemic cities: Problematizing the regime of traceability in South Korea

Big Data &Society, Volume 9, Issue 1, January-June 2022.
Since 2020, many countries worldwide have deployed digital contact tracing programs that rely on a range of digital sensors in the city to locate and map the routes of viral spread. Many critical commentaries have raised concerns about the privacy risks and trustworthiness of these programs. Extending these analyses, this paper opens up a different line of questioning that goes beyond privacy-centered single-axis critique of surveillance by considering digital contact tracing symptomatic of the broader changes in modes of urban governance that renders our cities traceable, knowable, and governable through data. Based on archival and real-time analysis of South Korean national and local COVID-19 dashboards, online forums, and interviews with South Korean public health practitioners, this paper offers a sociotechnical analysis of digital contact tracing that looks at the various intersections of state-political, bio-political, and techno-political power dynamics. In contrast to popular narratives that attributed the success of the Korean approach to digital contact tracing to its collectivist culture and smart city infrastructures, this paper suggests that the case can be better understood by looking at both the macro-level shift in the forms of governance that takes on a spatialized and networked character and the micro-level formation of moral responsibility that shape one’s conduct as a health and safety-conscious citizens. As the latest realization of the expanding regime of traceability in digital/urban governance, the development of digital contract tracing is seen to parallel with concurrent changes occurring in multiple domains of life including knowledge production, cultural memory, and individual subjectivity.

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