Kakao backs down, withdraws warrant refusal

October 7, 2015
A woman opens Kakao Talk, a South Korean mobile messaging app with more than 60 million users, on her smartphone in Seoul, South Korea. A handful of smartphone apps that began as basic instant messaging services have amassed several hundred million users in Asia in just a couple of years, mounting a challenge to the popularity of online hangouts such as Facebook as they branch into games, e-commerce, celebrity news and other areas. (AP Photo/Hye Soo Nah)

A woman opens Kakao Talk, a South Korean mobile messaging app with more than 60 million users, on her smartphone in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Hye Soo Nah)By Yoon Sung-won

By Yoon Sung-won

Kakao, the operator of the nation’s most-used mobile messenger, KakaoTalk, said it will resume providing conversation records to the prosecution, retracting its previous decision to refuse all warrants requesting monitoring.

The company had reached an agreement with prosecutors, Prosecutor General Kim Jin-tae said during a National Assembly audit of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, Tuesday.

“We have come to a settlement to properly enforce warrants,” the prosecutor general said. “We have agreed to delete all personal information and to receive the content of conversations to investigate. If we discover that some of the content is related to a crime, we will request for that part separately.”

Kakao claimed that it has strengthened protection on users’ personal information. But expectations are that the move may cause privacy issues as the prosecution can make arbitrary decisions about whom to monitor. It is also possible that many KakaoTalk users will leave the service over privacy concerns.

The company said it will provide conversation records to the prosecution after encrypting information on the users who are not subject to the investigation. Once the investigators discover the encrypted users’ relevance to the investigation, they will have to make an extra request for the information later. The company also said it will only cooperate when it receives an official document signed by the chief investigator.

“During the last year, Kakao has paid attention to users’ concerns over privacy invasion as well as to criticisms that investigations on serious criminal offenses which threaten national security and society, such as espionage, murder and kidnapping may be undermined,” the company said in an official statement.

“Now that we seek equilibrium between the conflicting claims and demands in our society, we have decided to resume cooperating in monitoring.”

During October last year, Lee Sirgoo, who headed the company at the time, vowed to refuse prosecution warrants for monitoring even if he might be punished by the law.

The remark came after the company was caught in a controversy for providing its users information and conversation records to the prosecution, which was investigating a false accusation case. Many users had left KakaoTalk for privacy concerns and turned to German mobile messenger Telegram.

Since then, Kakao has also introduced a secret chat mode which encrypts all conversations before they are stored on its servers. It has also formed a committee to discuss technological and political measures to protect users’ privacy.

“Many experts have pointed out that even one warrant may invade tens and hundreds of users’ privacy,” Kakao said. “We will continue to work to improve the system and work to create better measures to protect personal information.”