Electronic Eavesdropping on the Rise

  • By Kim A-sa

    March 09, 2019 08:19

    Electronic eavesdropping and surreptitious recording of people's remarks are on the rise, often with an eye to posting them on the Internet. New electronic gadgets make it easier to record any arguments, but the result is the unwanted exposure of private conversations.

    In some cases this has been in the public interest, for example by exposing online Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-ah's atrocious behavior in a conversation with her husband, who is seeking a divorce from her. In another case, it revealed the convoluted dealings of JTBC anchor Sohn Suk-hee with a freelance reporter who was blackmailing him.

    But electronic spying pops up in the most unexpected places. One newly hired employee at a major conglomerate was baffled to be asked by his boss what type of smartphone he uses. When the staffer said a Galaxy, his boss hung up immediately. The staffer called him back again, thinking he was cut off by mistake, but there was no answer. The boss instead called back through Kakao Talk, which cannot be recorded.

    Small bugs have also become popular among school moms in recent years. One overprotective mother posted advice on a chat forum to sew bugs into the clothes or bags of their children or have them wear necklaces with recording devices. This may make it easy to obtain proof of possible abuses by teachers, and audio evidence is more convincing than grainy surveillance camera footage, but it also invades the privacy of everyone around the child.

    One parent said, "I feel guilty when I think about my child's teacher, but it is more important to prevent verbal or physical abuse."

    Another popular use of eavesdropping devices is to check if a spouse is cheating. Smartphone spy apps can turn handsets into surreptitious recording devices. But audio or text information gathered that way can result in a lawsuit for violating communications privacy laws and criminal punishment.

    More recently recording devices that look like pens, glasses or other small utensils have become popular, just like in the James Bond films of old.

    Korea has very lax privacy laws. Communications privacy laws prohibit the recording of private conversations between third parties, but allow recording of conversations involving oneself, although legal experts say that it is still unacceptable to record other people's voices without letting them know.

    Surreptitious recording is not illegal if it was done with fair reason, but there is no clear precedent for such cases. Suh Jung-wook at law firm Minjoo, said, "There is a lack of awareness in Korea about protection of privacy, and more public discussion is needed about electronic eavesdropping."

    In France and Germany, it is illegal to record other people's voices without their consent. Although the rule differs by state in the U.S., 11 states including California also make it illegal to record others' voices in telephone calls without their consent.

    Japan allows the recording of others' voices during phone calls, but makes it illegal to transmit the content to others. This is why Apple does not equip its iPhones with call recording functions.

    One employee at a state-run agency always leaves the TV on, because he heard that the constant chatter on air interfere with recordings. And a growing number of people opt for Kakao Talk to make voice calls because the messaging service leaves no traces.

    Kwak Keum-joo at Seoul National University said, "The phobia about electronic eavesdropping stems from a lack of trust in society. We need to raise more awareness and educate the public about how such practices invade the privacy of others."

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