Korean authorities accused of illegal online surveillance

SOUTH KOREA - Opposition lawmakers slammed law enforcement officials on Monday for stepping up questionable online surveillance of private citizens, amid concerns the government was suppressing information online.

Minor opposition Justice Party Rep. Seo Gi-ho said prosecutors had set up a special team last month that would "makes requests" to portal sites to delete certain frequently browsed search words.

Prosecutors aim to curb "defamatory conspiracy theories targeting government officials," Seo said, quoting government documents.

Main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy Rep. Jung Cheong-rae in a separate hearing accused police of spying on thousands of SNS accounts without warrants.

The comments add to the recent accusations that President Park Geun-hye is cracking down on press freedoms and information flow, after authorities indicted a Japanese journalist on defamation charges last week.

Seo said that prosecutors overstepped legal boundaries by creating an Internet portal monitoring team. The Korea Communications Commission, the country's public watchdog for media information, is responsible for overseeing portal sites according to related laws.

The judge-turned-lawmaker also accused the authorities of blindly obeying "President Park's words."

On Sept. 16 the president said that a proliferation of unfounded online rumours was causing unnecessary public friction.

Two days later, according to Seo, prosecutors called in representatives of the nation's main portals, Naver Corp., Daum Communications and SK Communications, for a "meeting" to brainstorm preventive measures against "the dissemination of false rumours."

"The meeting was not a meeting, but a unilateral declaration by state prosecutors that they would pursue such policies from now on," Seo said, quoting comments from representatives of "one of the nation's major portal sites" present at the gathering.

The prosecutors who chaired the talks were the same ones who last week indicted Tatsuya Kato, the Seoul bureau chief of the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun, Seo added.

Kato had reported in August that President Park had held private meetings in the early hours of a ferry accident in April that killed more than 300, apparently suggesting the president had ignored her duties during a national crisis.

The presidential office has accused Kato of spreading false rumours and defaming President Park.

At a different hearing of the parliament's Security and Public Administration Committee, NPAD lawmaker Jung accused police of spying on hundreds of accounts on Band, a social media network operated by Naver Corp.

According to Jung, police viewed the private information of thousands of "friends" of an unnamed labour leader on Band, without proper search warrants.

The labour activist was a participant in strikes by the Korea Railroad Corp. union late last year.

"This means that police can look into the private information of thousands of individuals while investigating one suspect," Jung said.

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