“NIS looks into your ‘gmail’; next time, it can be you”

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of a contributed article by a progressive activist Jang Yeo-kyoung appeared in the <PRESSian> on Dec. 7, 2011 as a part of a special series on National Security Act in Korea 2011. The rationale of the special series is clearly expressed in the editor’s note below. All rights regarding this post stay with the author of original article or with the <PRESSian> and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. Original article of this post (in Korean) can be found in the link at the bottom.

Editor’s note. Dec. 1 is the day the National Security Act (NSA) was enacted. NSA that was enacted on this day in 1948 as National Law no.10 has been there for 63 years with several revisions. The evil deeds NSA committed during the sixty three years are quite well known. The criticism that the law turns the clock of human rights, democracy, and national unification backwards is in fact very poignant. Not only UN but even major countries like US recommend the revocation of it.

But, NSA is rampant again in Lee Myung-bak’s government. In this circumstance, NSA Revocation People’s Alliance (People’s Alliance) and NSA Emergency Response Group (Response Group), designating a response week, jointly started an action to stop the abuse of NSA under the slogan <NO! NSA; STOP! NSA> on Dec. 1. In the same line, they contributed a relay of articles on the issue of NSA. Contributions will be published for one week starting from Dec. 1.

“NIS looks into your ‘gmail’; next time, it can be you”

[National Security Act, what is the problem? ④] NSA, it does not monitor spies only

Jang Yeo-kyoung 장여경

Last Sep, a little commontion broke up among domestic as well as international internet users since Korean news media reported the circumstance that National Information Service (NIS) had been intercepting international email services such as Gmail. Since intercepting Gmail service whose communication protocol is known to be encrypted was considered impossible, it was an international blockbuster. Among with the expressions of shock, Twitter was rocked with discussions whether it would be possible to intercept Gmail. Did NIS really intercept Gmail?

Well, that’s what NIS claimed by itself. NIS, for an ostensible reason of intercepting Gmail transactions of some subjects, applied a warrant for it and the court granted it. Both Korean court and NIS consider the Gmail packet interception as a fait accompli. In a response to the constitutional court, NIS claimed the inevitability of packet interception as follows:

“[Subjects] attempt organized ‘cyber-exiles’ to international email service providers (Gmail, Hotmail, etc.) or secret bulletin boards where our jurisdiction is severely restricted … internet packet interception is inevitable to respond to them efficiently.”

After all, NIS alleges that it needs to use packet interception techniques to monitor the cyber space. It also alleges that the whole process is legitimate since everything is executed according to warrants and lawful procedures.


People demanding justice based on common sense in the so-called ‘Wangjae-san’ case. ⓒ Yeonhap News 연합뉴스

Packet interception; a comprehensive blank warrant

But, it’s not. What is packet interception? It is an act of monitoring the whole internet channels real time; otherwise, it is a ‘comprehensive blank warrant’. In a ubiquitous age, monitoring someone’s internet is in fact equivalent of knowing all of someone’s personal life. We converse and communicate with somebody, read some book, appreciate some cultural art, shop something, and do some bank transaction over the internet. Although it serves the public interest of criminal investigation, thorough monitoring of someone’s personal life is like complete deprivation of basic human rights. Packet interception is in fact the most infringing communication interception technique of human rights in the history of mankind.

More serious problem is that NIS is using packet interception not for ‘criminal investigation’ but for ‘monitoring’. Contrary to other interceptions, it is impossible to specify suspects and targets exactly for the case of packet interception. Under the current internet environment where many people or multiple computers share the same line, it is not certain whether the person using the internet line now is the suspect or not.

For that reason, materials collected through packet interception have rarely been used as evidences or investigation materials in public trials to prove suspects’ crime. Consequently, the reason information investigation agencies use packet interception is not to collect evidences for crime investigation but to collect wide range of information for inspection and surveillance.

How is this kind of thing possible? That’s because of the National Security Act (NSA). NIS can investigate crimes defined in NSA according to the NIS Law, and Communication Secrecy Protection Law also allows NIS to intercept domestic residences’ communications for the investigation of crimes defined in NSA. Then, what kind of crimes are defined in NSA?

If one writes something that sympathizes the policy or propaganda of North Korea, it is a crime of praise & encouragement; if one makes or possesses documents of that kind, it is a crime of possessing publications benefiting the enemy. How easy it would be to find things like these in the internet? From simple quips to serious discussions, the possibility is countless. But all of these can be used as reasons for NIS’s unbounded packet interception without weighing the seriousness of cause.

Naturally, NIS’s interception cases outnumber all cases by other investigation agencies. Based on our common sense, packet interception should be used for cases like abduction or kidnapping where outstanding investigative necessity is indisputable. The necessity should be menacing enough to endow information investigation agencies with the right to intercept people’s internet packets even if it means infringing the rights of communication secrecy our constitution endows every one.

However, the government statistics tells that 97% of all packet interception is carried out by NIS. This is a secondhand statistic from communications companies. If we include, as revealed during the Agency for National Security Planning (former body of NIS) X-file case in 2005, the number of direct interceptions that they carry out with their own equipments, the whole scale of packet interception would be gigantic. Were all those interceptions truly necessary?

Nobody knows. We still even don’t know how widely the packet interception is carried out. No one in National Assembly, or the court, or anywhere in this country exactly knows whether interception agencies are properly checked or not. Will there be any other absolute secret powers like this? It’s all justified by the name of national security.

97% of all packet interceptions were done by NIS

Packet interception is not the only problem. NSA is in fact watching our internet unknowingly but unfailingly.

Korea Communications Commission (KCC) ordered “Jinbonet” to close the website of the Federation of Korean University Student Councils (FKUSC) last Aug. They said KFUSC had violated NSA. It is had to understand that this college students organization is an outright organization benefiting the enemy, but isn’t it a serious violation of human rights for banning them from using their own website for that reason?

Many organizations were actually ordered by KCC for the violation of NSA. Recently, “Sarangbang Group for Human Rights” and “Labor Front” were ordered to scrap North Korea related postings in their homepage boards. KCC is very fussy about NSA. Between 2007 and 2010, KCC ordered to scrap 3,716 internet postings for itself, all on the ground of violating NSA. Although it is already well known that NSA is such an unjust law that even the UN recommends its provocation, the troubling fact is that KCC, not the court, determines the violation of law in a law governing country. KCC’s opinion determines the closure of websites or the deletion of web postings.

Of course the whole thing is not determined by KCC alone. Before KCC orders, Korea Communications Standards (KCS) first discusses the matter. In this way, KCS blocked the personal page URL (http://twitter.com/uriminzok) of a Twitter account ‘@uriminzok’. It also deleted the comment of a private organization “USFK Evacuation Movement Headquarter” criticizing the fact that the zeroing fire target sheets printed with North Korean leaders’ faces on were used for reserve duty trainings.

Originally, this system was introduced to quickly block illegal information in the internet. But, according to a disclosure by Rep. Choi Moon-soon during 2010 National Assembly inspection of the administration, 55.3% and 44.7% of the internet posting deletion requests to KCS for NSA violation were from the police and NIS, respectively.

Almost all of their requests are accepted. How can mere KCS deny their requests? After all, if police or NIS determines something is against NSA, it is executed all the way to the KCC’s administrative order via a formal inspection by KCS. How come this is not a censorship? All of this has been justified by the cause of national security.

Packet interception that is executed for the nominal reason of crime investigation but has never been submitted as a criminal evidence to the court. De facto acceptance of the decision by NIS or the police without court’s decision for the nominal reason of illegal information eradication. This, in itself, is the violation of human rights and the infringement of democracy. This is not a national security; simply, it is a surveillance of people.

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