South Korea Mandates Obsessive Kid-Tracking Spyware

It’s 10 pm do you know where your kids are? This old public service announcement has taken on new, cyber-significance: In South Korea, mobile spyware knows where your kids are – by order of the government.

It may seem a bit disturbing, but it has been mandated that spyware be installed on the phones of the under-18 set in the world’s most wired country.

The Korea Communications Commission regulatory body pushed the legislation through last month. And it’s rather airtight: parents can’t opt out, and the mobile phone operators themselves are mandated to “remind” parents of their civic requirement until they comply.  

Taking a look at a translation of the official ordinance by Open Net Korea, the language is of the Extreme Legalese variety. But the intent boils down to an effort to prevent kids from accessing porn and other adult content:

(1) According to Article 32-7(1) of the Act, a telecommunication business operator entering into a contract on telecommunications service with a juvenile under the Juvenile Protection Act must provide means to block the juvenile's access to the media products harmful to juveniles under the Juvenile Protection Act and the illegal obscene information under Article 44-7(1)1 of the ICNA ("Information harmful to juveniles") through the telecommunication service on the juvenile's mobile communications device such as a software blocking information harmful to juveniles.

And sure, that’s an admirable goal. But, what exactly constitutes “material harmful to juveniles” has not been defined, and the broad language obviously lends itself to the slippery slope of censorship.

For instance, some of the spyware is aimed at sniffing out when certain keywords are used in messaging or surfing, alerting parents immediately. These lists are broad and varied, and include generic words like motel, inn, handicap, crazy and garbage – which may provide more of a window into the regulators’ sexual hang-ups than anything else.

Others are so dependent on context and have so little to do on the surface with “harmful material” that their inclusion seems obsessively privacy-invading. These include ‘girl I like’, ‘boy I like’, dating, boyfriend, girlfriend, breakup, jealousy, lonely, stress, complaint, help, worry, breast, plastic surgery, appearance, menstruation, adoption, divorce, homosexual love, single parent, terrorism and poison.

But, the blacklist also includes a collection of keywords that can only be described as coming straight out of an afterschool special, a litany of teenage angst and legitimate concerns: suicide, pregnancy, outcast, bully, beer…and that perennial parental red-flag Big Kahuna: ‘run away from home’.

And, another group of flagged works speaks to school violence and crime: words like threat, kill, shut up, violence, destroy, thief, rape.

Keywords aside, the initiative seems to overreach in other areas too. For instance, take one of the Android apps (there are 14 apps in total), dubbed ‘Smart Sheriff’. This app is a general-purpose spyware juggernaut: It tracks kids’ geolocation, what apps and games they’re playing and for how long, what websites are visited and how long they’re online. In short – it tracks pretty much everything about their mobile lives. It also gives parents the ability to remotely disable apps or power down the phone.

It’s one thing for a parent to implement parental controls and oversight in a manner that they decide privately suits their particular child. It’s quite another to have this come as a blanket approach from the national government.

Could it be a precursor to eliminating resistance to a wider-spread, Big Brother-esque effort in future years?

“It is the same as installing a surveillance camera in teenagers’ smartphones,” said Kim Kha Yeun, general counsel at Open Net Korea. “We are going to raise people who are accustomed to surveillance.”

Open Net Korea is planning to appeal the regulator’s ordinance with South Korea's Constitutional Court.

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