|Concerns rise over the widening digital divide as "digitally disadvantaged" people continue to experience difficulties accessing self-service kiosks and QR code-related services at many public facilities such as eateries and now, possibly, restrooms. / gettyimagesbank|
By Park Han-sol
A long line of women clutching their smartphones, each with unique QR codes on their screens, as they wait for a bathroom cubicle to become vacant, may be a scene the country will witness in the near future as the state-run Korea Land & Housing Corp. (LH) pushes for the installation of a digital access system at women's restrooms.
LH announced its plan last month to introduce QR code scanners at women's restrooms in parks and public buildings as part of its efforts to tackle spycam crimes, a nationwide phenomenon that has sparked outrage in recent years. According to the plan, women can receive a one-time QR code acting as a virtual ID via a certified smartphone app, which can then be digitally scanned at the entrance.
Those who cannot or do not wish to gain access via QR code can either use the non-scanned standard restrooms or have their gender "verified" through other means, such as security cameras with facial recognition.
But despite the seemingly "good intention," the corporation's soon-to-be-launched pilot project has reignited a debate over the widening digital divide ― uneven distribution in the use of digital equipment and information ― as it would make necessary facilities inaccessible to a marginalized segment of the population.
Rep. Sim Sang-jung, the former chairwoman of the minor liberal Justice Party, released a statement, Oct. 12, arguing that mandatory mobile QR codes in public restrooms pose barriers that limit access for those who either do not own or who have difficulties using smartphones, including seniors, young children, the economically disadvantaged and people with disabilities.
Sim further pointed out it is inappropriate that "potential victims" of illegal filming, not the perpetrators, are required to provide their personal information to access public facilities, and that the forcing of individuals who may struggle to use QR codes to use different restrooms is not a viable solution. "It is LH's attempt to avoid its responsibility for maintaining safety at public facilities through digitization," Sim said.
Oh Joo-hyun, a research professor at Barun ICT Research Center of Yonsei University, agreed. "It is questionable whether female restroom users can really feel safe around such a digital access system," she told The Korea Times. "Rather than being relieved, they may feel like they're under surveillance as someone will be responsible for monitoring the entry records. The system also raises suspicions as there is no consent formed regarding how long the information will be kept and how it will be managed."
|A church-goer scans her QR code to register her personal information as a condition of entry to a Catholic church in Songpa-gu, Seoul, June 17. Such QR code schemes are part of the government's contact tracing efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic. / Yonhap|
While young "digital natives" raised in a media-saturated world are freely exploring ways to utilize Korea's high-tech infrastructure, the "digitally disadvantaged" have been increasingly left behind. According to the National Information Society Agency's 2019 report, those with the basic ability to use smartphones and other digital devices among the disabled, senior citizens and low-income earners stood at 60.2 percent.
The contactless boom spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic has further increased this digital gap. QR code scanners greeting mask-wearing patrons at the entrance of restaurants and cafes have become an especially familiar scene in Korea as part of the country's contact tracing efforts.
When the Korea Web Accessibility Certification Center (KWACC) evaluated mobile apps such as Naver, KakaoTalk and PASS with QR code functions in July, it discovered that they had poor accessibility for the visually impaired. Some specific difficulties included the 15-second limit to correctly scan the one-time code, which is too fast for those using screen readers, as well as a lack of audio guidance and alt-text ― alternative text allows descriptions of images to be read out loud ― throughout the certification process.
"From obtaining QR codes to scanning them, these apps are burdensome for users who are blind without the help of others," the center said.
For the economically marginalized who do not even own such devices, the situation can be worse. "Requiring the homeless without smartphones to use QR codes is essentially forbidding them from entering a space," activist Lee Dong-hyun of Homeless Action, a social movement organization that supports the homeless, told The Korea Times.
"It is true that a majority of the population owns the gadget, but overgeneralizing the scale of its usage to the entire country ends up depriving the rights of those who are excluded from that category," Lee said.
He suggested that in order to be more inclusive of the homeless, the authorities should introduce more specific guidelines in handwritten visitor registers, which are provided in some eateries alongside QR code scanners, to query for information on the general whereabouts of their shelters in lieu of phone numbers.
|An elderly woman engages in a digital education program for senior citizens on using kiosks provided by Seocho District Office, Seoul, in this Nov. 13, 2019, photo. / Korea Times file|
A growing number of restaurants and cafes have also joined the trend of kiosk touchscreen ordering, with customers interacting with menus and even payments via self-service kiosks or tablets minimizing direct contact with employees.
These kiosks, the epitome of contact-free technology, pose one of the greatest struggles for the elderly. According to a survey by the Korea Consumer Agency of 300 senior citizens over 65 residing in Seoul in June 2019, 51.4 percent of respondents cited "complex steps" as one of the major problems with using self-service screens, followed by 49 percent choosing "embarrassment felt by stares from those standing behind," when multiple answers were allowed.
"At one restaurant, I kept wrestling with the whole process of using the digital menu and I bitterly felt the stares and whispers of some young customers behind me," Kwon Jung-ho, 65, recalled.
For the visually impaired, kiosks without audio guidance often prohibit them from placing an order. "Even when they succeed in placing an order, locating credit card readers and figuring out their wait numbers indicated in the receipt can be extremely difficult," Choi Eun-jeong of the KWACC said.
|Multiple signs are posted on a pharmacy window in Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, to indicate that face masks are out of stock and urge customers not to wait in line from early morning, March 9, when a five-day rotation system was implemented for face mask purchases. / Korea Times file|
Besides eateries, the digitally disadvantaged were also alienated in terms of health and welfare services, especially during the peak of the pandemic. In March, when the government rationed face masks to two per individual per week in accordance with a five-day rotation system, many people utilized mobile apps informing them of the mask inventory of each pharmacy, thus reducing unnecessary wait times. However, for those who had difficulty accessing the system, visiting pharmacies to buy masks without such information was extra frustrating.
"I found the app too cumbersome to use, so instead, I went to pharmacies in my neighborhood countless times to purchase masks in person. But they always seemed to be out of stock. I remember one time I got so furious that I even ended up yelling at the staff," Kwon said.
Moreover, during the government provision of emergency relief funds from May to August, the online registration was developed under the presumption that each applicant had a mobile device and an email address, activist Lee pointed out. This in turn made it hard for the elderly and those who do not often utilize such digital identification to receive financial aid with ease.
|Senior citizens wait to register for the emergency relief fund in person at a community service center in Jongno-gu, Seoul, May 18. / Yonhap|
"The digital divide was already an existing phenomenon that became increasingly visible as a result of COVID-19," research professor Oh stated. "Due to social distancing measures, many of our daily in-person activities moved online. In contrast to the younger digital natives who can quite easily alter the balance between offline and online activities, senior citizens and other digitally marginalized communities experience much more difficulties adjusting to the changes and performing essential tasks, including online banking, QR code-based entry logs, shopping and reservations."
Oh highlighted the need for what she called "digital supporters" in addition to a comprehensive education program, especially for senior citizens. With these supporters, the digitally disadvantaged population will be able to ask for practical help, repeatedly if necessary, with performing particular tasks.
"Since activities such as online banking and shopping require a large amount of personal information, digital supporters should be reliable and officially approved figures. They will be a kind of social worker, helping clients efficiently manage digital products and services," Oh said.