Why South Korea refuses to share mapping data with Google

Security concerns outweigh the benefits of Google Maps, a South Korean court determined Friday. The government had asked Google to blur sensitive information about military facilities, which the tech giant declined to do.

Hong KI-won/Yonhap/AP
Choe Byong-Nam, a director general of South Korea's National Geographic Information Institute, speaks after a meeting at the National Geographic Information Institute in Suwon, South Korea, Friday.

In a disappointment for the multinational tech firm, South Korea will not share mapping data with Google.

Making its much-anticipated ruling on Friday, a South Korean court determined that the security risks of providing the data to Google outweighed the convenience of the company's Maps service. The country had been divided over the issue since Google filed its request to use locations data back in June.

Having Google Maps would have made it easier for tourists to find their way around, possibly making it more likely that foreigners would visit the country, proponents had argued. At the same time, the South Korean government was concerned that Google Maps would also allow other countries – specifically North Korea – to access sensitive information about military facilities.

As a foreign company, Google would need to have a domestic data server to be able to use local mapping data, according to South Korean law. Google currently handles its maps data at centers outside the country.

The ruling means the app can’t offer walking or driving directions in South Korea and that’s an issue for tourists and business travelers, say some government ministries. Though South Korea has fast, cheap internet access, online navigation is only available through local companies – in Korean.

And with the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang coming up, not having Google Maps would be particularly problematic for the influx of tourists expected to visit the city, Google suggested.

One answer, some local businesses said, was for Google, an Alphabet company, to build data centers in South Korea. Current Google policy is to distribute all data across multiple computers in different locations, and often different countries.

The government, meanwhile, said its primary concern was the security of military facilities. Foreign governments might be able to look at images provided through Google and target South Korean military installations, it suggested.

But if Google blurred sensitive information related to those facilities, then the government would bend the rule prohibiting foreign companies with international data centers from using mapping data.

Google, however, declined to do this, leading to a court case.

"Our position from the start was that if it deletes security facilities, we would allow exporting [the local mapping data],” said Kim Tong-il, an official at the land ministry. "Google's position is that it won't delete those. The question was whether we would allow that regardless."

In a statement after the ruling, Taj Meadows, a Google spokesperson, said the company was "disappointed" by the decision, saying the company has "always taken security concerns very seriously."

Google will continue to provide the same Maps service as it did before, in compliance with South Korean legislation.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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