Kakao snooped on websites shared in chats

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Kakao snooped on websites shared in chats

Kakao has come under fire for mishandling private information obtained from the chat rooms of 40 million people who use their mobile messenger app KakaoTalk.

With the excuse of enhancing search results on Daum, the search engine acquired by Kakao in 2014, the operator of the nation’s No. 1 mobile messenger app has been disclosing website addresses shared in chat rooms of users on Daum search result pages since January.

Kakao officially apologized on Thursday.

“It was thoughtless of us to think that it would be okay to use the website addresses just because they did not include users’ information or the content of conversations,” Kakao said on its official blog.

The controversial practice was exposed by a local media outlet on May 27. It reported that a link to a website shared in a private KakaoTalk chat room conversation came up on a Daum search result an hour later.

In other words, Daum learned that the website was related to certain keywords when it was shared in a chat room. Thereafter, when the keywords were searched by anyone, that website would show up in the results.

A spokesman for Kakao explained that they were able to collect such information based on data provided from the preview function of the app, which pops up when a user shares a link in a chat room.

The preview function provides the webpage’s title and a few photos to give a brief idea of what the page is about. A similar preview comes up on Facebook when a person shares a link.

“In order for the preview to show up, the app downloaded on the user’s phone asks our main server to give information based on the website address,” said Kane Lee, a Kakao spokesman. “As a result, our server is left with a sort of log that includes all the website addresses shared in the users’ chat room, which we allowed to be shared on Daum.

“Sometimes, it may come up in the upper part of our search result [on Daum] because we obtained the information first-hand, but ultimately, such website addresses should be searched in all search engines,” he added.

Technically, when a website is not protected by a specific program called robots.txt that blocks uninvited users, any webpage is prone to come up in searches by Daum, Google, Naver and other engines.

“It’s overly hasty to say that they have done anything illegal,” said Park Kyung-sin, a professor at Korea University School of Law. “But it may bother people who have been using the app under the assumption that their conversation would be kept private. It is certainly problematic that there are no admissions that the company would use website addresses shared in KakaoTalk chat rooms for their own purpose.”

This is the second time Kakao has gotten in hot water for mistreating the private information of their users.

In 2014, KakaoTalk was roundly criticized for allegedly cooperating with prosecutors who were monitoring the internet to find people posting defaming comments about President Park Geun-hye.

After that scandal was revealed, many KakaoTalk users switched to the Germany-based app Telegram, at least temporarily, because it offered encrypted technology for chatting.

Rival LINE, operated by No. 1 search engine Naver, has managed to avoid such controversy. Since last October, the app has implemented end-to-end encryption that prevents any third party from tapping into chats, both on its mobile and PC versions.

Executives of the troubled mobile messenger were called in later in the day by the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning and Korea Communications Commission, to be questioned.

BY JIN EUN-SOO [jin.eunsoo@joongang.co.kr]
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