Mobile Phone Verification: Can I Get Your Number?
As a part of the Leo Gala Series, Asia Society Korea spotlights the issue of phone verification in the connected life of Korea
By Matthew Fennell, Senior Contributor
September 29, 2021 — For many years, a cell phone number served as a means for friends, family, or companies to connect through call or text. More recently, the phone number has developed into a powerful tool for identifying people on internet communication platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, or Instagram. Registering for many online services now requires a verification code, sent via SMS, and entered into a webpage or application. While this online security process is becoming standard worldwide, accessing online services in Korea is not as easy as simply having a phone number. The phone number must be registered in your name, verified by having a monthly contract, and signed up for using a Resident Registration Number (RRN). As a result, using many digital services in Korea can be almost impossible for those unable to access, or maintain, a monthly phone plan, predominantly foreigners or Koreans living abroad.
To understand this further, we have to go back to the start of Internet real-name verification in Korea. In 2004, in response to concerns that unregulated online speech would impact election results, the Korean government amended the Public Official Election Act. This law change meant that citizens had to verify their identity using a Resident Registration Number (RRN) before posting on election-related websites. In 2007, following calls for more stringent restrictions on digital anonymity to prevent online bullying and slander, real-name verification was extended to cover all websites with more than 100,000 daily users. Using a RRN became standard for people in Korea when accessing online banking or shopping services. However, following the Personal Information Protection Act of 2011, the Internet real-name system, initially verified by name and RRN, was replaced by mobile phone authentication. Crucially, mobile authentication is only possible once a person uses their RRN to sign up for a monthly contract with one of the big domestic telecommunication companies.
Despite the seemingly good intentions of mobile verification in safeguarding people in the new digital world, the system inadvertently made many digital services inaccessible to those who cannot sign up for a domestic monthly cellphone contract. First, a monthly contract requires a Resident Registration Number, limiting people in Korea who do not have one, such as tourists, short-term visitors, or members of the diplomatic community. Therefore, it is common for many foreigners living in Korea to have their cell phone plans in the name of their boss, company, or a Korean friend. Additionally, monthly contracts are a financial commitment, often for at least one year, deterring the financially disadvantaged or Koreans living abroad unwilling to maintain monthly tariffs. So, for many foreigners or overseas Koreans without a monthly cell phone plan in their name, something as straightforward as buying a shirt online in Korea can be very challenging due to the shackles of mobile phone verification.
What are some other consequences of not having access to mobile phone authentication in Korea in 2021? At a basic level, using food delivery apps, shopping online, or signing up for local websites such as Daum or Naver is extremely difficult. Ordering a Smart Request, Venti, or Blue Kakao taxi is off limits as this demands registering a bank card, something only possible after a phone verification. Also, participating in any online forum or discussion board is forbidden as this too requires authentification. At a higher level, accessing government websites such as the National Pension Service, National Tax Service, or National Health Insurance is tough without a monthly contract plan. Registering online for a Covid vaccination is impossible without a Naver Certificate, Kakao Certificate, Pass Certificate, or Financial Certificate. And despite the importance of using QR codes for tracking people in the fight against the spread of Covid-19, a monthly contract tariff is needed to generate such a code.
Life in South Korea, especially during the pandemic, has become increasingly reliant on online platforms for communicating, shopping, or banking. Digital services permeate all parts of daily life, from presenting a QR code when going for a morning coffee to using apps when ordering groceries for home delivery. Yet, despite this shift towards an online society, mobile phone verification is excluding and isolating certain groups within the community. This exclusion is especially highlighted for those foreigners quarantining for two weeks upon arrival in Korea. The “Quarantine in South Korea” Facebook page has many cries for help in ordering food and other essentials because of the restrictions of not having a domestic phone number. Similarly, a “Koreans in Moscow” Kakao chat room has people complaining that they can no longer use many Korean online services as they have paused their monthly contract.
Although the number of foreigners in Korea and the number of Koreans living abroad is increasing, non-face-to-face personal authentication is a barrier that appears very difficult to overcome. To reverse this increasing digital divide, the government and relevant tech companies must develop solutions to address mobile phone verification restrictions.