Want Free Wifi? Give Us Your Social Security Number
edited for clarification May 21
In order to drive traffic to its Korean-language search page, Google has teamed up with the extremely popular Starbucks and Korea Telecom to offer free WiFi services at all of its 250-odd locations throughout the country. Google pays for the service, Korea Telecom offers the physical hardware and connection, and Starbucks provides the locations. However, to use the service, both Korean citizens and foreign residents alike must fill out a form giving their resident registration numbers and real, full, legal names, which are verified immediately by Korea Telecom. And unlike the toothless and completely voluntary birth date verification system that some US-based web sites use, false entries are rejected.
Google began sponsoring the program to sponsor free WiFi internet connections at all the Starbucks’ locations in South Korea in December of 2008. The service was originally in Korean language only and offered to Korean citizens only, but the service has since been extended to foreign residents of the country. Korean citizens get a different style of registration number from foreign residents, which creates a constant digital divide of a more uncommon sort – most Korean portal sites both require a resident registration number to use and reject foreigner-assigned registration numbers. However, this free WiFi service is one of the few services which accept both foreign and domestic registration numbers equally.However, there is an issue with privacy here, as a real name and registration number is all that anyone needs to completely steal one’s identity in Korea. Registration numbers here include a birth date, which is an additional piece of information, and using just the number and name a malicious person could open a bank account, make credit cards, get a job, or even register to vote.
An additional wrinkle in the story is that Google Korea recently made a symbolic stand against a new Korean government regulation requiring them to gather resident registration numbers for Korean users of YouTube. This regulation went into effect on April 1 and required any web site with over 100,000 daily visitors that accepted content from those visitors to ask for resident registration numbers during signup. Google Korea responded to this by disabling the ability for anyone to post comments or upload videos on its YouTube Korea site. However, existing users could still use YouTube’s international site, and new users can still register there no matter which country they are from.
There is an important disctinction between the services, which is that Google is not the one collecting personal information from users in the case of WiFi at Starbucks. Korea Telecom is the company providing the ID verification service. However, its close association with the Google name and immediate redirection to the Google Korea search page might give the wrong impression. On the one hand it stands against requiring resident registration numbers for YouTube Korea, but on the other hand it sponsors Korea Telecom's service which does require real names and ID numbers every day in 250+ locations throughout the country.