Hacking case sparks mobile device paranoia

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Hacking case sparks mobile device paranoia

After revelations that the nation’s top spy agency used Italian hacking programs to eavesdrop on mobile devices, high-ranking officials and politicians are eschewing modern means of communications such as messaging services, fearful they are all vulnerable.

Some have gone so far as to return to landline telephones that plug into the wall for any conversations that are sensitive.

One lawmaker on the National Assembly’s intelligence committee turns off the power on his smartphone these days when he holds conversations. He’s convinced the idle device can be used as a bug if its power is on.

“Through the hacking program, conversations can be recorded and it can also track your location,” said the assemblyman, who requested anonymity.

For sensitive communication, he uses a 2G mobile phone ? the kind most people stopped using in 2010 ? or the FaceTime function on his iPhone. He believes FaceTime uses foreign satellites and servers outside Korea.

“This method can avoid tracing if prosecutors confiscate data,” he said.

Another official who occupied a high-ranking position under the Lee Myung-bak administration, said Monday, “Ever since I took my current post, I have been using a mobile device registered under someone else’s name. If I have anything important to say to someone, I don’t use the phone or email and instead say it in person.”

Korea’s top spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), is under fire for having purchased hacking software from an Italian surveillance malware vendor in 2012 and allegedly using it to monitor people in Korea. An NIS agent involved in the purchase and use of the software killed himself under mysterious circumstances July 18. There are accusations that the malware, which could penetrate computers and mobile devices, can monitor popular messenger applications like KakaoTalk, which is widely used in Korea.

Leaked data from Italian malware vendor Hacking Team earlier this month indicated NIS agents inquired about the company’s progress in dealing with KakaoTalk in March 2014.

Software mogul-turned politician Ahn Cheol-soo, who heads the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) probe into the hacking issue and who made his personal fortune by selling virus-protection software for Korean computers, primarily uses Viber, a Cyprus-based texting and calling application.

Telegram, another messaging application with a server in Germany, is also popular with government officials fearful of being spied upon.

“I switched over because other lawmakers were telling me that they don’t trust KakaoTalk,” said Rep. Kim Yong-nam of the Saenuri Party, a former prosecutor.

Opposition party officials are meeting personally for important conversations. Kim Han-gill, former chairman of the main opposition NPAD chooses to do so, according to one of his aides.

“When he contacts assemblymen, he does not use text messaging services that can be saved and stored,” the aide said.

Kim does not have a KakaoTalk account.

The phobia of mobile devices is bipartisan.

“In the middle of a meal, Saenuri Party lawmakers will say they have an important phone call to make,” a government agency official said, “and then use the landline of the restaurant.”

There are some 5.5 million 2G cellphone users in Korea, around 10 percent of all mobile device users in the country.

Telecommunication providers say those who hold onto 2G are usually elderly but there are also a considerable number of people who keep them for security purposes.

“Smartphones have a lot of data that can be extracted after planting a malicious code,” a telecommunications company official explained.

The defense minister, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high-ranking military-related officials have used 2G cellphones with an encryption device since 2010.

A defense ministry official said this was a measure “to prevent tapping and monitoring by anyone, including North Korea.”

Likewise, high-ranking officials from the Foreign Ministry and other government branches receive secure mobile phones that block any applications that are not pre-approved.

In the past, NIS officials usually used 2G phones because they were more secure. But since 2013, smartphones became commonly used by NIS employees.

“During his time, former NIS Director Lee Byung-kee said it was problematic for an intelligence agent not to use a smartphone,” an NIS official said, “but in our headquarters, the camera and recording capabilities are automatically blocked.”

Another government official said the paranoia over monitoring of mobile devices was out of control.

“Tapping is illegal and monitoring needs a permit from the courts. Domestic mobile devices can’t be monitored even if such a warrant is issued since there’s no equipment to do so.”

The official added, “The remote control system hacking program can monitor emails and text messages. It can’t monitor KakaoTalk and needs a comprehensive approval by the president.”

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, LEE JI-SANG and NAMGUNG WOOK [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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