By Kim Tong-hyung
Telecommunications companies here may become an arm of the government for spying on South Korean citizens, should the Grand National Party (GNP) have its way in rewriting the Communications Privacy Act, according to concerned civil liberties advocates.
A bill submitted by GNP lawmaker Lee Han-sung mandates the nation’s telephony and Internet providers ― KT, SK Telecom and LG Telecom _ to provide equipment, facilities and technology required for law enforcement and intelligence officials to conduct all allowable forms of surveillance.
GNP lawmakers claim that the suggested changes merely intend to legalize the tracking of mobile phones, which are quickly replacing traditional fixed-line telephones as the main medium of voice communication.
Critics claim that the proposal, should it go through, will enable the interception of every type of electronic communication, from telephone calls, fax messages, e-mails and chat transcripts to shared peer-to-peer (P2P) files.
The bill also requires telecommunications companies to keep all telephone conversation records and Internet protocol (IP) addresses or face a maximum fine of 30 million won.
``Lee’s draft does not limit the expanded scope of surveillance to mobile telephony. The changes will basically force telecommunications companies to install equipment that would enable the monitoring of every type of communication they provide,’’ said an official from Jinbo Network, an activist group.
``The proposed bill allows the President full authority to decide what type of communication methods are to be monitored, and this would be an unprecedented move for any democratic country. Austria recently tried but failed to require the nation’s telecommunications companies to provide surveillance equipment.’’
The Lee Myung-bak administration has already been considering more ways to monitor the Internet, with most of the measures focused on limiting online anonymity, which policymakers claim as inevitable to curb ``cyber bullying.’’ This has many Korean Internet users switching to e-mail and blog services provided by foreign companies like Google in a move dubbed as ``cyber exile.’’
Controversy erupted earlier this year when it was found that the National Intelligence Service (NIS), the country’s spy agency, had been conducting real-time tracking of Internet communications through packet sniffing, or monitoring data traffic on computer networks.