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Creepy Or Comforting? South Korea Tracks Smartphones To Curb MERS

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Thirty-four-hundred people are now under quarantine in South Korea because of the MERS outbreak. And the government is tracking their whereabouts using their smartphones to make sure that no one breaks quarantine. NPR's Elise Hu reports from Seoul on whether the public there finds that tactic creepy or comforting.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Chung-ahm is a Buddhist monk who lives in Jangduk village in southern South Korea.

CHUNG-AHM: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: We called him up since we couldn't visit him in person. That's because for the past week, government quarantine orders mean no outsiders are allowed into Jungdak village, and no villagers are allowed out.

CHUNG-AHM: (Through interpreter) Our freedom is restricted because we can't go outside the village, so that's a little frustrating.

HU: The government cut off the 105-person village from the rest of South Korea after one villager caught MERS and interacted with her neighbors without knowing she was sick.

CHUNG-AHM: (Through interpreter) It wasn't a purposeful thing that happened to our village. Nobody did it on purpose.

HU: Still, the quarantine means monk Chung-ahm's only in-person visits are from healthcare workers conducting twice-daily temperature checks. And during this quarantine, it's not just body temperature officials are watching. Healthcare workers carefully monitor the location of thousands of Koreans under quarantine through phone calls, home visits and by tracking their mobile devices.

KWON DUK-CHEOL: (Through interpreter) We request information from the telecom companies with the individual's consent.

HU: Kwon Duk-cheol leads a MERS response headquarters for the Korean Health Ministry.

DUK-CHEOL: (Through interpreter) Even when we don't have consent, we have the legal basis to request information under the information law and the contagious disease management law. We give telecom companies a specific time, and they give us the exact location of the individual.

HU: The vast majority of Koreans under quarantine orders are OK with being tracked this way. They've given the health ministry consent to monitor their mobile devices. Park Kyung-shin, a law professor at Korea University, explains.

PARK KYUNG-SHIN: People are currently being more cooperative because they are more anxious. They became more anxious because of the lack of transparency and lack of state leadership that has been shown so far.

HU: At first, Korean critics said the government didn't do enough to combat the virus which fueled public anxiety. Now, with a heavy-handed response, strict quarantine measures and tracking, complaints are muted.

KYUNG-SHIN: So yes, people are in a very contradictory situation.

HU: The Health Ministry defends its moves - Kwon Duk-cheol.

DUK-CHEOL: (Through interpreter) While an individual's private information is important, we're also trying to stop the virus from spreading for the common good, the interest of the nation.

HU: In Jangduk village, a few villagers have complained about the police barricades, the constant checking in and that they didn't get advance notice they'd be cut off from the rest of the country. But ask the monk, and he's pretty Zen about the whole situation.

CHUNG-AHM: (Through interpreter) It's something that people should work together to endure. It's not necessary for people to get overly emotional about this.

HU: Leave it to a monk to take strict quarantine orders in stride. Elise Hu NPR News, Seoul.

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