South Korean IM app takes bold stand against police abuses

Caught up in a government crackdown on free expression, the South Korean company KakaoTalk gave police access to thousands of private user communications. The platform is wildly popular, serving social messaging services to 92% of smartphone users in the country, but the scandal cut its stock price by 8%, and drove nearly a half-million users off the platform — and onto more secure messaging apps.

That’s where things got interesting.

On Monday, the CEO, Lee Sirgoo, vowed to reject government requests for user data — even warrants from prosecutors — and to take measures to improve data security, such as introducing end-to-end encryption and reducing the time data are retained on the company’s servers to 2 or 3 days. The CEO said, “If our decision is a violation of the law, I as the head of Daum Kakao, will bear any responsibility.”

Access commends KakaoTalk for taking these bold steps, and recognizing the need for extreme measures in the face of overbearing and arbitrary government surveillance (the crackdown stemmed from criticism of the President’s personal affairs). Rarely do CEOs put themselves at risk to protect users, or acknowledge the need for higher encryption standards. We hope this step galvanizes the conversation on user rights in the country, and inspires more actions that put users at the heart of tech policy debates.

Professor K.S. Park has documented the history of widespread surveillance on Korean networks, often executed with the collusion of telcos. We call on the Korean government to end this latest crackdown, and bring surveillance policies and practices into line with the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. Access and our partners will continue to fight for user rights in the face of surveillance in South Korea and beyond, and invite other companies to join in this effort.