Local chat apps being shunned
Mr. Jo, a 32-year-old trading company employee, downloaded a new message and chatting application called Telegram on Wednesday.
He had to - friends who joined his group chats on KakaoTalk had moved on to the Germany-based application.
As soon as Jo ran the application on his smartphone for the first time, inputting his telephone number and automatically alerting people in his contact list, he was showered with messages reading, “Congratulations on your asylum.”
“When they said ‘asylum,’” Jo said, “it felt like I had become an independence fighter.”
Jo and his friends are not alone. Koreans are bailing out of old chat apps en masse and trying new ones like Telegram.
They are evading cyber snooping by the Korean government.
On Sept. 18, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office established a new cyber investigation team, according to the office of New Politics Alliance for Democracy Rep. Chang Byoung-wan, who is also a member of the Science, ICT, Future Planning, Broadcasting and Communications Committee of the National Assembly. The purpose is to prevent cyber defamation and the spread of false information.
The idea sparked controversy and it later transpired that the chat records of the deputy head of the left-wing Labor Party, Jeong Jin-u, had been tapped by the authorities using a warrant.
That spooked people across Korea.
Telegram, which was ranked around 100th on Apple’s App Store in terms of downloads in Korea until last month, was brought up to the top of the list Sept. 24.
Foreign messaging platforms are now becoming essential for people who have conversations on sensitive issues. Stock traders in Yeouido, western Seoul have been using those message services for a long time. Recently, politicians, journalists and civic group members have also switched.
“I hesitate to use domestic messengers because it feels like the government may have a peek at the conversation,” said Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Center for Military Human Rights. “Whether they actually spy on the application or not, I’m considering removing all domestic messengers from my phone.”
It’s also known that adherents of the Evangelical Baptist Church, better known as Guwonpa, used the Cyprus-based app Viber for their communications. The sect was led by the late Yoo Byung-eun, the patriarch behind the Sewol ferry accident that claimed more than 300 people. Guwonpa has long been worried about government surveillance.
Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said during an investigation a few months ago, “The Yoo family is using a messenger that is hard to trace.”
Prosecutors and police officers are even using Telegram, which ordinary Koreans see as a tip from the horse’s mouth.
“Due to security issues, I don’t usually use KakaoTalk or even text messages,” said a prosecutor of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. “I began to use Telegram out of curiosity because I heard it had a better security system.
“More than 10 prosecutors joined Telegram in only two days,” he added.
“All five members of my team began to use both KakaoTalk and Telegram,” said an officer of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, who requested anonymity. “But we don’t talk about sensitive issues on KakaoTalk.”
People switching to foreign messenger applications say it would be more difficult for Korean authorities to get to their chats.
But Daum Kakao insists KakaoTalk is still safe.
“KakaoTalk is doing everything to protect users’ information,” said the newly merged company.
“Messengers are for private conversations, and people get anxious when they feel that authorities might look at them later,” said Prof. Yoon In-jin, who teaches sociology at Korea University.
BY KOH SEOK-SEUNG AND LEE SEO-JUN [email@example.com]