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KakaoTalk sees its worst week yet

National IT companies flounder as fears over surveillance remain

Oct 11,2014




Daum Kakao, the result of a formal merger between Daum Communications and Kakao Corporation, saw its mobile messenger KakaoTalk lose more than 400,000 users last week amid increasing worries over the security of private chats.

The situation has been a wake-up call for Korean information technology servers, proving that privacy protection is no longer something that can be dealt with lightly.

Fears over online surveillance spread following the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office announcement on Sept. 18 that it had established a new cyber investigation team intended to prevent cyber defamation and the spread of false information over the Internet. The move sparked controversy after news broke earlier this month that authorities had used a warrant to tap the chat records of Rep. Jeong Jin-u, the deputy leader of the left-wing Labor Party.

The incident spooked Internet users, leaving many afraid that the government could easily monitor their mobile messengers and social media accounts. Thousands have already migrated to foreign messenger apps, including the Berlin-based Telegram, on which messages are “heavily encrypted and can self-destruct,” according to its website.

Data from New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Rep. Jun Byung-hun showed that 405,800 KakaoTalk users had already deleted their accounts. The company has not yet come up with an effective countermeasure, though it said on Wednesday that it would add a “privacy mode” on the smartphone messaging app within the year to reinforce security.

But while Korean companies have only added to consumer distrust following revelations of government surveillance, similar circumstances have prompted foreign tech companies to take action to attract new consumers concerned about information privacy and hacking.

Facebook, the world’s largest social networking service (SNS), recently announced that it is planning to launch a mobile messenger based on anonymity. According to a New York Times report last week, Facebook is developing a new mobile messaging app in which users can chat utilizing more than one pseudonym.

Until now, Facebook had been insistent that its subscribers use their real names, arguing that the policy made the service stand out from other social networking sites and provided account holders with a virtual map of their real-life connections.

However, the company recently turned its eye toward anonymous services in an effort to attract younger consumers and become more versatile.

That’s part of the reason why apps like Snapchat, which automatically deletes messages seconds after a user reads them, have gained so much popularity in the United States and elsewhere. The application’s founders capitalized on the widespread preference among consumers that their messages be kept private and secure - and not stored on their personal devices or on a remote server.

Twitter took that a step further. The social networking site sued the U.S. government on Tuesday, claiming that the Department of Justice and the FBI were violating its right to freedom of expression by restricting what it chose to reveal about Washington’s requests for its users’ information.

Meanwhile, KakaoTalk is currently facing the most severe crisis since its launch while being passive in dealing with the situation. According to NPAD Rep. Jun, since late September, KakaoTalk’s 26.46 million users have shrunk to 26.05 million, while Telegram gained 500,000 users over the same period.

Over the past four years, KakaoTalk has stored its users’ conversations on its server for roughly five to seven days. Local large portal companies and other tech companies also provide users’ information to investigative authorities if a warrant has been issued.

However, most have failed to alleviate anxiety and distrust among consumers by voluntarily revealing how many times the government or law enforcement agencies have requested information. Google, Facebook and Microsoft have already revealed a limited number of government information requests through transparency reports.

“[The surveillance] incident proved that while foreign IT companies lead the trend as entrepreneurs in putting the needs of society first, Korean IT companies lack the experiences and skills in such areas,” said Cho Gwang-soo, a professor at Yonsei University.

Still, others argue that domestic tech giants should invest more in privacy protection and security, especially Internet companies.

“Mobile messengers should be more proactive in dealing with consumers, because they can abandon [those platforms] at any time,” said Jung Ji-hoon, a professor at Kyung Hee Cyber University. “Korean IT companies should take this incident as an opportunity to come up with a social consensus over the privacy problem.”


BY PARK SOO-RYEON [kjy@joongang.co.kr]




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