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Fri, Nov 24, 2006 - Page 10 News List

South Korean city of the future raises hopes, concerns

PERSONAL INFORMATION Want to live and work in a place that is totally networked? Try New Songdo City, but be warned -- Big Brother might intrude on your privacy


It's Monday morning and the wall computer has a few suggestions to start the day: Your blood pressure is high, so how about tofu for dinner? Try another route to work to avoid traffic. And there's no more orange juice, so more's been ordered.

That may sound like an episode of The Jetsons, but developers are making it reality with the construction of a US$25 billion digital city in South Korea. The first 2,000 of a total 65,000 residents are expected to move into their wired homes in 2009.

New Songdo City, which its developers say may be the world's largest ever private development project, is the crown jewel of an ambitious plan by the Seoul government to turn a muddy plot of 607 hectares of reclaimed land on the Yellow Sea into a gateway to northeast Asia.

Built from scratch, it will boast the most advanced digital infrastructure imaginable, from blanket wireless Internet coverage and automated recycling to universal smart cards that can be used to pay bills, access medical records and open doors.

Songdo will merge medical, business, residential and government data systems into a so-called ubiquitous city, or "U-city," on a scale never seen before. There are smaller ubiquitous projects -- the local term for a digital community -- but nothing compares to Songdo.

Homes and offices all have built-in computers that will collect data from swipe cards and sensors for the "U-Life" management center.

"In America and Japan, some building companies use group control or group management, but in our country it's for a whole city," said Jang Choong-moo, director of strategy and new business at Songdo U-Life.

It is the ultimate testing ground for services to track products and people with identification chips -- a technology facing resistance in other countries because of privacy concerns.

Kim Kyoung-woo, a spokesman at the Ministry of Information and Communication, said South Koreans generally trust corporations with personal data and that "it's not a big issue" for the public.

It is unclear exactly how the information will be protected, but Huh Jeong-wha, IT director at Songdo U-Life, says residents will have to give permission before their data can be used.

Liz McIntyre, who co-authored a book on consumer privacy and corporations called Spychips, said South Koreans should be wary.

"Songdo City's anonymous tracking infrastructure could quickly be turned to new purposes, and its people could become virtual prisoners of their own technological creations," McIntyre wrote in an e-mail.

"US companies are having to look outside for places to implement their ubiquitous systems, and have turned to the more trusting people of South Korea for experimentation," she said.

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