By Kim Tae-gyu
The National Intelligence Service (NIS), the country’s spy agency, is wiretapping more and more fixed-line phones and tracking the e-mail messages of Koreans.
The Ministry of Information and Communication on Tuesday said the NIS traced a total of 8,440 phones or messages last year, up 4.4 percent from 8,082 in 2005.
This contrasts to other law enforcement agencies like prosecutors, police and military agencies, which substantially reduced the interception of telephone conversations.
The prosecution spied on just 43 phones last year from 100 in 2005. The annual tallies were 131 for the police, down 46 percent year-on-year, and 51 for military investigators, down 54 percent.
``The overall wiretapping cases amounted to 1,033 in 2006, up 5.7 percent from the previous year,’’ Choi Young-hae, a director at the Information Ministry, told a press conference.
``The increase was led by the NIS, which says it had to bug many suspects last year due to investigations on a couple of pro-North Korean spy rings,’’ Choi said.
Choi’s remarks are mainly about an underground spy ring called Ilsim-hoe, which caught the nation by surprise late last year. Five suspects were arrested by the NIS last October on charges of spying for North Korea.
Choi said all the eavesdropping attempts were legal, and received warrants from the court. But civic groups such as the Citizens’ Action Group are critical about it.
``Other investigative institutes seem to have been serious about cutting down on wiretapping, which is extremely intrusive to the privacy,’’ said Ju Mi-jin, an activist at the Citizens’ Action Group.
``But the NIS appears to overuse phone spying. It is required to make an effort to minimize intercepting people’s private conversations,’’ Ju said.
Regarding cellular phones, the ministry continued its stance that the mobile consumer gadgets are practically impossible to eavesdrop with current facilities.
The controversial issue erupted here in 2005 when the NIS was found to have tried to listen to cell phone conversations of society leaders in the early stages of the 1998-2003 Kim Dae-jung administration.
However, the government said that mobile phone eavesdropping is theoretically possible but implausible because of lack of proper facilities in the mobile telephony networks.
Currently, a bill is pending at the National Assembly, which forces the country’s three wireless operators to install systems to enable mobile wiretapping.
The ministry also claimed instant-messaging services, which are widely used here among young Internet surfers, are off limits to law enforcement agencies due to technical barriers.
``It is impossible to intercept instant messenger-based messages. It is a global issue that irritates intelligence agencies of the world,’’ said an NIS official who participated at the press conference held at the head office of the ministry in central Seoul.