(Listen to GrooveCast host Chance Dorland’s man on the street interviews on Kakao privacy on the player below!)
While Samsung and Apple continue to battle for smartphone supremacy, the battle for Korea’s chat messages was decided years ago. KakaoTalk is on 93 percent of the nation’s smartphones, about 37 million Korean users. But while the company seems to have an impenetrable stronghold in both major app stores, hundreds of thousands of Koreans have recently jumped ship. Why? Privacy.
The newly formed Daum Kakao company said on its blog on Oct. 8 that of the 147 government requests for user information it received from last year through the first half of 2014, it only refused nine requests, a hand-over rate of almost 94 percent.
Given that the Park Geun-hye administration has decided that Internet and social media comments can be considered “defamation,” it’s been reported that more than 400,000 Koreans have left KakaoTalk since Oct. 1.
At the same time, the German-based messaging app Telegram, seen by many as a more secure option, has gained 1.5 million Korean users, making it one of the most popular smartphone applications in Korea.
Groove Korea hit the streets here in Seoul to find out if people were switching over and what they think about government intrusion into their private messages.
Groove Korea: Have security concerns made you think about leaving KakaoTalk? Should the Korean government be able to read your Kakao messages?
18-year-old German-Korean woman: I only use KakaoTalk to talk to Korean people, and I never have so deep a conversation that I would have to hide it from the government, so I don’t think there is a reason to change. People will always spread rumors. I don’t think they can change that, but the government could counteract it by making people more confident, rather than spying on them.
19-year-old man from Ilsan: I’m afraid of using websites, but I still use KakaoTalk because all Koreans use it. If the government checks our messages, we aren’t free.
20-year-old Korean-American woman: I read a quote once that said something like: “The moment you can’t make fun of your country is the moment you should rebel.” I think that’s very true. … If it threatens a government so much that they’re willing to violate a person’s freedom, then what kind of country are you living in?
34-year-old Korean man: Privacy is very important to me, and if I need to migrate to Telegram for the sake of privacy, then that’s obviously what I need to do. If they don’t have a warrant, it’s none of their business.
Jin Joon-il, 39-year-old man from Incheon: No, it’s definitely not okay for the government to look at people’s messages.
In mid-October, Daum Kakao CEO Sirgoo Lee tried to calm worries that caused users of the service to question its security. On Oct. 16, he testified at a parliamentary audit on wiretapping warrants, saying, “I’ve honored court warrants for eavesdropping so far, but wiretapping warrants violate the law. I cannot obey the government’s request to hand over KakaoTalk messages in order to protect the personal information of users.”
He went on to say, “In order to administer wiretapping warrants according to the law, it is necessary for us to have eavesdropping equipment and provide data. But we cannot do that. We have no real-time monitoring capability, and we are also unwilling to do it.”
While it’s possible that the company’s new refusal to hand over user records is just a face-saving measure to retain users, it could also have serious consequences.
Should Daum Kakao or company employees be punished if they do not comply with government requests?
18-year-old German-Korean woman: In this case, since it’s actually a breach of privacy, I think it’s okay for them to break the law. I think it’s very brave of them to stand up to the government.
20-year-old Korean-American woman: Many years ago, voting as a woman was against the law, so we can’t hold the law as absolute. Humans are humans. They’re wrong and have biases. Korea has a lot of very old-fashioned ideas that I’m sure will change, and that includes aspects of technology.
34-year-old Korean man: Whether you like it or not, it’s the law, right? … There are obviously other ways of dealing with it, and there’s a proper way to address it.
Jin Joon-il, 39-year-old man from Incheon: He (the CEO) shouldn’t cooperate with the government. It’s really not right. I don’t know about legal matters; I don’t think there’s much we can do about that. The CEO can try negotiating with the government, by maybe offering other things — not what the government asked, though — to get out of legal responsibilities.