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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's president is cracking down on rumors in cyberspace in a campaign that threatens the popularity of Kakao Talk, the leading social media service in a country with ambitions to become a global technology leader.
Prosecutors announced the crackdown two weeks ago after President Park Geun-hye complained about insults directed at her and said false rumors "divided the society."
[S. Korea rumor crackdown jolts social media users]
That rattled users of Kakao Talk, a smartphone-based messaging app used by 35 million of South Korea's 50 million people. It prompted a surge of interest in a previously little-known German competitor, Telegram.
Rankey.com, a research firm, said an estimated 610,000 South Korean smartphone users visited Telegram on Wednesday, a 40-fold increase over Sept. 14, before the crackdown was announced. The company said its estimate was based on a randomly selected group of 60,000 people it follows regularly.
On Friday, Telegram was the most downloaded free app in Apple's App Store in South Korea. On Google Inc.'s store, Telegram was the No. 2 downloaded free communications app, behind only Kakao Talk.
South Korean users left reviews on Telegram saying they left Kakao Talk to seek "asylum." They asked Telegram to add a Korean language service.
The uproar threatens to slow adoption of social media or send South Korean users to foreign services, undercutting government ambitions to build a high-tech "creative economy."
"It will definitely limit the number of new signups, as users opt for services which are not subject to monitoring," said Jon Bradford, a managing director at startup accelerator TechStars in London. "Any policies that the Korean authorities only impose upon local businesses will damage their competitiveness both at home and abroad."
South Korea is one of the most wired societies, with 85 percent of its people online and 40 million smartphones. The government has promised to step up financial support for tech startups.
Kakao Talk's dilemma echoes criticism of U.S. technology companies following disclosures of widespread government surveillance. Internet and other companies have struggled to reassure users while saying they are legally obligated to cooperate with authorities.
This week, China's telephone regulator said it approved Apple Inc.'s new iPhone 6 for use on Chinese networks after the company promised never to allow other governments secret "backdoor" access to users' data. In Germany, the consumer privacy regulator of the major city of Hamburg told Google it must obtain Germans' permission before using information about them to create profiles for email and other services.
Park's government has been sensitive about the Web and social media after it came under criticism following a ferry sinking in April that killed 300 people, most of them high school students.
Yong Hye-in, a 24-year-old college student, complained her friends were targeted for unjustified data collection after she was detained during a protest in May demanding government action over the ferry disaster. She received a notice that her house and her Kakao Talk account had been searched with a court's approval.
Yong was alarmed to find investigators obtained personal information of people she contacted. That included messages, photos and videos and network addresses.
"It was an indiscriminate collection of data of people around me," she said. "They should weigh how much (my friends) were involved in the case."
Jung Jinu, an opposition politician, complained investigators who looked into his role in a protest over the ferry tragedy collected messages and phone numbers from his 3,000 contacts on the service. He said many used Kakao Talk to discuss social, labor and political issues.
"It is no different from eavesdropping," Jung said.
Kakao Talk, owned by Daum Kakao, an Internet portal and app developer, denied it gave authorities data of Jung's friends. But the court warrant that Jung showed said all messages he sent and received between May 1 and June 10 were subject to search.
Park ordered the justice ministry last month to investigate unfounded stories in cyberspace. At a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 16, she complained about insults about her and said online rumors have "gone too far and divided the society," according to the presidential office's website.
Two days later, prosecutors announced the launch of a team to monitor online information. They said anyone who posts or passes on information deemed false will face punishment. They said that for "grave matters," investigations will begin without waiting for complaints and offending information will be deleted.
The Seoul prosecutors' office did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment. News reports say authorities will only monitor public posts on Twitter, Facebook, online forums and Web portals, not private messages exchanged on online messengers.
Officials at Kakao Talk said authorities cannot look at users' messages without a court order.
"We are aware of such concerns," the co-CEO of Daum Kakao, Lee Sirgoo, told reporters on Wednesday.
Lee said the company had "top security technology" to prevent leaks and only stored messages for a short time.
However, he said, Kakao Talk is "subject to South Korean law" and "when there is a fair execution of law, we cooperate with prosecutors" by handing over information.
So far, the potential for users to migrate to Telegram, which has fewer features such as emoticons, or other messaging providers is unclear.
Rankey.com's survey showed about 90 percent of users of devices that run Google's Android, the most popular operating system in South Korea, visited Kakao Talk every day. Only 2 percent launched the Telegram app at least once on Wednesday.
Some people say Kakao Talk could protect users by encrypting their data. But the company said it saves messages for up to five days in unencrypted form to allow users to copy them onto multiple devices.
Responding to growing surveillance concerns, Kakao Talk said Thursday it would reduce the storage period to three days.
Yong, the college student, said she has joined Telegram. She also tries to meet people in person instead of using messengers. But she said too many people still use Kakao Talk, so she cannot stop using it completely.
Many South Koreans are considering leaving KakaoTalk and switching to other mobile messaging applications due to concerns over a government crackdown on rumors circulating on social media, according to the Associated Press.
In mid-September, the South Korean government announced that it would be taking “proactive” measures to prevent the spread of false and malicious postings on major portal websites through the creation of a special investigative team. This means if someone were to cause a serious social controversy through false accusations and rumors, then that individual could face detainment or punishment for his or her actions. The investigative team would then potentially gain access to private chat histories to seek out the origins of these rumors.
[SKOREANS CONSIDER LEAVING KAKAOTALK AMID CONCERNS OF GOVERNMENT SURVEILLANCE]The announcement hasn’t sat well with South Korean social media users. Many have accused the government of censorship and attempting to control public opinion, and in the last few weeks, a considerable number have weighed dropping Kakao Talk in favor of different mobile messaging options.
The most popular alternative messaging application has been Telegram, a free Russia-based app that was created to avoid surveillance from Russian officials. On Friday, it was the most downloaded free app on the Apple App Store in South Korea; on the Google Play Store, Telegram was the No. 2 downloaded free communications app behind KakaoTalk. A few of the app’s South Korean users said in reviews that they left KakaoTalk to seek “asylum” from government surveillance and requested Telegram to add a Korean language service.
A research firm said an estimated 610,000 South Korean visited Telegram last week, a 40-fold increase compared to the numbers before the crackdown was announced. Smaller South Korean messaging apps, such as DonTalk, have seen higher downloads in recent weeks as well, along with other messengers that have their servers abroad.
Despite this mass migration, it’s hard to picture South Korea without KakaoTalk. After all, Nielsen reported at the end of 2013 that 93 percent of South Koreans used the application. Telegram hardly comes close, especially since it lacks the language option and special features such as emoticons and games that KakaoTalk provides.
President Park Geun-hye’s administration has been sensitive to social media. Many South Koreans were critical of the government’s response to the Sewol ferry sinking in April, and a number of them said their houses and social media accounts had been searched with court approval.
Park also relayed her unhappiness over online rumors during a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 16. She said that slander and false rumors on the Internet were causing division in the nation, and she ordered the justice ministry to investigate unfounded rumors on the Internet, which led to the formation of the investigative team.
They didn’t waste much time. On Oct. 1, a woman accused of libeling President Park was sentenced to four months in prison with a one-year stay of execution. The woman, identified only by the surname Tak, was found guilty of spreading false rumors that the president had an extramarital affair with her former mentor and his son-in-law.
Civic organizations also criticized police and government officials for recently seizing KakaoTalk chats and personal information of Labor Party leader Jung Jin-woo and about 3,000 of his acquaintances. They had gathered to demand a probe into the Sewol ferry disaster.
Daum Kakao, which was formed by the merger of Daum Communications and Kakao, has tried to assuage Kakao Talk users by saying that authorities could not look at users’ messages without a court order. Co-CEO of Daum Kakao, Lee Sirgoo, told reporters last week that the company had “top security technology to prevent leaks and hacking,” and that KakaoTalk messages were only stored on servers for only three days before getting permanently deleted.
However, Lee said Kakao Talk was still “subject to South Korean law” and would still hand over information “when there is a fair execution of law.”
Daum Kakao said Wednesday it will introduce a stronger privacy protection feature in its app by the end of the year. The move comes as a countermeasure to prevent more subscribers from leaving KakaoTalk amid privacy concerns triggered by the news that its user data was under the authorities’ scrutiny.
The company apologized to its customers saying, “We are deeply sorry for causing confusion and anxiety with our service. We will take every possible measure to prioritize the protection of user information in the future.” Daum Kakao said the new “privacy mode” will allow users to delete confirmed messages and have secret one-on-one conversations using new technology called “end-to-end encryption.” It also explained this new mode will fundamentally make it impossible for the authorities to inspect conversations from the server, with or without a warrant.
[Kakao to offer ‘privacy mode’ amid gov’t monitoring fears]The amount of days that conversations are stored on its servers has also been reduced to a maximum of three days, down from seven, starting today.
KakaoTalk has been embroiled in controversy after Rep. Jung Jin-woo of the small opposition Labor Party revealed that the prosecution recently examined his KakaoTalk conversations with 3,000 acquaintances who gathered at a rally to demand a probe into the Sewol ferry disaster near the President’s office.
Added to a previous announcement by the prosecution that it will strengthen real-time censorship on cyberspace, the news made Korean users to migrate to the German-based service Telegram, which its developers claim guarantees more heavily-encrypted and safer conversations.
The company admitted Wednesday that a total of 147 cases of conversation monitoring were requested by the government, adding that all the requests were accompanied with a warrant.
Meanwhile, Telegram, a German mobile instant messenger application, is reaping the benefits from the scandal. The company has experienced a surging inflow of Korean subscribers seeking a safer and more private service free from cyber censorship by the government.
An official at the Berlin-based Telegram said on Tuesday, “Over 1.5 million new South Korean subscribers downloaded and registered for the application last week,” which added to its more than 50 million users around the world as of September.
It also ranked at the top of the popular free apps list on Apple’s Appstore in Korea and 12th place on Google’s Play app market as of Wednesday.
Telegram is a mobile instant-messenger application built by Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, who were protesting against censorship by the Russian government.
Since its launch in August last year, Telegram has claimed the messages on the app are “heavily encrypted and can self-destruct.” It also said its servers are spread worldwide to make it safer from hacker attacks. All these mean that it will be far more difficult for the Korean authorities to track and snoop into private conversations on Telegram.
“We have not shared our users’ private information with a third party so far,” a Telegram official said.
On Tuesday, it launched an updated version of Telegram app that supports Korean language.
KakaoTalk saw the number of its users decreased last week. This fueled the suspect that the “cyber exile” may be actually happening.
According to data by Rankey.com, an online market researcher, Tuesday, the average number of daily users of KakaoTalk was about 26 million last week, down 1.8 percent from a week earlier.
KakaoTalk’s lead in the domestic market has remained undisturbed in recent years despite continuous challenges by other services such as Naver’s Line and Whatsapp, the world’s biggest mobile instant messenger.
German-based messaging app Telegram, which has emerged as a cyber asylum for Koreans, launched an official Korean app to target the Korean market.
After recruiting English-Korean translators on Oct. 2, Telegram posted a FAQ page in Korean, announcing its entry into the Korean market with the release of its official Korean app on Oct. 7.
[KakaoTalk On Notice; Telegram Targets Korean Market Utilizing Popularity with Cyber Asylum Seekers]Telegram's rapid response seems to be part of its strategy for retaining Korean users as loyal customers, the number of which has been rapidly increasing since the controversy surrounding government censorship of the nation's top messaging app KakaoTalk. In other words, the move is aimed at enjoying increased demand in Korea based on its huge popularity with cyber asylum seekers.
Previously, there was only an unofficial open-source version used by Koreans, and there were not many active users. These factors can be interpreted as the other two reasons for the earlier release of its official Korean version.
"More than 1.5 million Koreans were registered as users last week. Currently, 50 million people around the globe are using Telegram each month. Korea is the country that leads this growth," said Markus Ra from Telegram’s support team in an E-mail interview with Yonhap News Agency on Oct. 7.
In the past, the local IT industry kept a close eye on the cyber asylum phenomenon, but believed that this phenomenon was probably temporary. However, the industry is alerted by the fact that the number of downloads for the German messaging app keeps snowballing. The launch of the official Korean service has also put the industry on edge.
There is growing concern about the reoccurrence of the phenomenon where a large number of local netizens migrated from local web portals to Google's G-mail after the PD Notebook incident in 2009.
Year-round online monitoring is targeted at not only KakaoTalk, but also other local Internet service providers. For example, Naver's email service NaverMail and SK Communication's messaging app NateOn could be censored at any time.
Nevertheless, Kakao, the company behind KakaoTalk, is especially nervous about the censorship. Following suspicions over the government's confiscation of Labor Party Deputy Leader Jung Jin-woo's KakaoTalk chats, the management of Daum Kakao did not clearly express its position about controversy over government surveillance at a recent press event. As a result, KakaoTalk was singled out as the epicenter of cyber censorship.
Daum Kakao became embroiled in the controversy surrounding government surveillance immediately after its merger. The company is said to be in crisis managementmode at the moment. In particular, its team in charge of security technology is reportedly working to establish security measures that can reduce the controversy surrounding government surveillance.
German app "Telegram Messenger" is gaining popularity in South Korea, where people are searching for alternatives to "Kakao Talk," which the Korean government was reportedly monitoring.
"Telegram Messenger" (Telegram) rose rapidly on the most downloaded apps lists in South Korea after claims that the country's number one multi-platform texting app "Kakao Talk" disclosed user information to the government. This comes after prosecutors vowed to clamp down on negative comments online about South Korean President Park Geun-hye, regarding her whereabouts when the Sewol Ferry sunk in April.
[South Koreans boycott messaging app Kakao Talk en masse for Telegram]The migration
Telegram became the most popular app in South Korea on October 1 when some 610,000 South Koreans dowloaded it. Kakao Talk lost 400,000 users, according to Rankey.com.
"Many people say that the South Korean government is not happy about the criticism, and that is why they are stepping up the censorship and the measures," says a Seoul-based journalist who wishes to remain unnamed.
"People are beginning to worry that their privacy might be breached due to this internet censorship. That is why they are moving to Telegram," he adds.
'Secret Chat' on Telegram
Telegram is so secure that it is considered "unhackable." Its founders, Nicolai and Pavel Durov, have even invited people to try and hack it.
The two founders reportedly offered anyone who could hack their server $200,000 earlier this year. This competition led several people to take an interest in Telegram.
"The problem with some widely used social messenger sites is that all unencrypted messages can be wiretapped," Rüdiger Weis, IT professor at Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin told DW. Also, the NSA revelations increased awareness about encryption, he notes.
Telegram has the "secret chat" tool which provides more security and offers end-to-end encryption - allowing only the messenger and recipient to read the messages.
"It is almost a magical property of cryptography that strong encryption on normal user devices cannot be broken from the most powerful agencies to the end of our solar system," says Weis.
And just like photo messaging app Snapchat, messages on Telegram can be programmed to self-destruct after a certain amount of time.
Telegram has become so popular that South Koreans are asking for a version in Korean.
sources: @realjonghyun90 (translated by @thaluuu), bigstory.ap, iamkoream, koreatimesus, businesskorea, DW
also shoutout to undeniablysarah for compiling all the links