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South Korea: Dating App Developer Convicted of Privacy Violation

The web developer of a controversial mobile application which tracks down the current location of one’s boy/girlfriend, has been indicted without detention by police in South Korea for violating the country's telecommunication law.

South Korean net users have criticized authorities for misunderstanding the application and have branded the decision as double-standards. They have also voiced concerns that the government’s harsh decision may discourage future web development.

The ‘Devil's App’

The ‘Trust Me!’ application (indirect translation) and its powerful Location-Based System enables users to track down targets, most commonly spouses or boy/girlfriends, to check if they are lying about their whereabouts.

The application was an instant hit in Korea, even amid concerns over information security and privacy. It ranked among the top 10 searched words of 2010 in South Korea’s most visited web portal sites such as NAVER and Daum.

App icons in the window of an Apple store. Image by Flickr user Cristiano Betta (CC BY 2.0.

App icons in the window of an Apple store. Image by Flickr user Cristiano Betta (CC BY 2.0.

The direct translation of the application's name is You Can Trust Obba’ (오빠 믿지, in Korean). The Korean word ‘Obba’, which literally refers to a female’s older brother, is widely used as an affectionate nickname for men when in a relationship. The English equivalent would be ‘sweetie’ or ‘darling’. However, ‘Trust Me!’ was soon nicknamed the ‘Devil’s app’ for thwarting cheaters’ attempts to stray.

On January 6, 2011, police charged 24-year-old developer, Jung-tae Kim, with providing people’s locations to third party users without consent.

Korean Communications Commission (KCC) explained that the reason the app's liability had been brought into question was not because of the complaints filed by several individuals, but rather mistakes made during its authorization procedure. Korean communication law states that when providing an individual's location to a third party, an organization has to notify and be licensed by the KCC.

Korean net users have accused the government of adopting double standards. A loyalty cashback program called ‘OK Cashbag‘, run by South Korean conglomerate SK Group, was also investigated by Korean authorities for commercial use of personal information. It was left unpunished however, after the government dropped the case.

Furthermore, people have blamed the government for its belated response in the case of ‘Trust Me!'. No action was taken against the app until several months after it became available for purchase.

Here is the summary of Korean Twitter users’ discussion of this issue.

@ollehs simpson stated:

오빠믿지 앱 개발자가 위치정보 공개 앱 개발한지 수 개월 이내에 검거된 것과 OK 캐쉬백 개인정보 사용남발이 불법이 아닌 것.

The developer of the ‘Trust Me!’ app has been indicted when it has already been available for several months. ‘OK Cashbag’ overused personal information much more than they did, but ‘OK Cashbag’ was not held accountable for legal liability. (This is unfair.)

@amatory11 criticized:

‘오빠믿지’ 개발자 입건, 개인정보 무단이용한 OK캐쉬백은?.. 대기업은 조사만 한거냐?

The police indicted the developer of ‘Trust Me!'. What about ‘OK Cashbag'? In dealing with the conglomerate, the government only investigated the case (rather than give the punishment)!

@skysy317, instead of criticizing the government's unfair treatment, pointed out the app’s utility:

‘오빠믿지 유용함. 어서 풀어줘

‘Trust Me!’ app is useful! Please, release him! Soon!

Slowing App Development

Some developers worried that this case could slow down the current boom of mobile app development in South Korea.

Young developers such as ‘Trust Me!’ founder Kim either do not care or do not understand the law and its interpretations; over-application of the law without clear evidence may dampen entrepreneurial spirits.

Blogger Silver Wolf (은빛 늑대, in Korean) commented on this aspect [ko] of the government’s decision:

오빠믿지 어플이 과연 (최근 신문 기사의 제목처럼) 개인의 정보위치 정보를 전화번호만 알면 마음대로 알 수 있을까요? 개발자이기도 하면서 직접 어플을 다운받아 사용해 본 결론은 아니다… 입니다. 실제로 이 어플은 커플간의 양방향 아이디를 일치 시켜야 되고, 실제로 등록이 되었다해도 실시간 위치정보가 아닌..내가 보여주어야 상대방에게 위치가 전송되는 방식이었습니다.

As mainstream media’s headlines allude, can the ‘Trust Me!’ app truly reveal the other’s location if the person knows his target’s mobile phone number? As a developer who downloaded and tried this app for a while, the answer is ‘NO’… In reality, this mobile app requires both parties’ (the ‘locater’ and the ‘locatee’) registrations and their IDs. Even after they registered themselves, it is not a real-time transmission of one’s location. The information regarding one’s location can be transmitted only after the sender had agreed.

The blogger then provided his view on why Kim's indictment occurred, even without clear evidence of privacy infringement. He blamed false and inaccurate media reporting, done without a clear understanding of the app’s function and mechanism:

아마도 언론이나 단순히 글을 퍼날은 블로그들에 의한 사실여부 확인보단 자극적인 보도로 인해 여론이 안좋은 쪽으로 형성되어 정통위에서도 이런 결정을 내린게 아닐까 합니다. … 더 이상 이와 같은 사례로 제2의 개인 개발자에게 피해가 가지 않았으면 하는 바램입니다.

I suggest that this situation was caused by sensational media coverage and ignorant bloggers who absentmindedly copy-pasted these news articles. Due to this [the spread of inaccurate reports], the public formed hostile views towards the app, which led the Korean Communications Commission to make the decision… I hope no such case happens again to the Korean web developing community in the future.
  • http://jeremyclarke.org Jeremy Clarke

    Wow what a great story! It sounds like the government is blaming him for the unrealistic fantasy marketing material for the app rather than for it’s actual effects, which is interesting.

    Maybe if the various descriptions of the app had been more realistic and made it clear that it only functioned with two-way consent (i.e. as a transparent deterrent against cheating rather than a sneaky spy tool to trick people) the developer would not be in this mess.

    I can’t find a link to the app/site in your post, was it taken down? It’s also not really clear what platform it was/is available on, is it an iOS app?

    • http://jeremyclarke.org Jeremy Clarke

      Actually, thinking about it more it seems like the app could pretty easily be used in a non-consenting way. If you are dating someone you almost definitely have access to their phone at some point, so you just need to install the app and impersonate your lover to activate it, then you can check the status later on.

      Of course this applies to a TON of other software which has the same potential for abuse, like keyloggers, which I doubt are illegal in Korea.

      • http://www.bloter.net/archives/author/jaeykim2 Jae Yeon Kim

        You’re right. It needs the consent of both parties by requiring them to type the two IDs when she(if this app is used as presumed) logs on. But there is a variety of, easy enough, ways that makes this consent thing void. That’s what many people are worrying about this app from the initial phase. Nonetheless, here is what interests me to this case and raises some doubts on his true liability. The developer was indicted not because a group of complaints filed the case and brought it to the court. Rather, the government made this decision based upon his not licensing or not having permission from them for the app. Anyway, thanks again for your comments! It’s helpful!

    • http://www.bloter.net/archives/author/jaeykim2 Jae Yeon Kim

      Dear Jeremy Thanks for your posting. This app is currently available for both iOS and Android. I checked out the information this morning. It is still alive. The name of this app is in Korean. I might guess that’s why you couldn’t find it out. If possible, try to type “오빠믿지”(in English, You Can Trust Obba) when you search through the Apple AppStore.

  • http://www.la-grange.net/karl/ karl

    Even before entering into someone putting the app on someone’s else phone without the prior consent, the social pressure of removing the opacity of your moves is a terrible thing. “If you love me, you have no reason to hide” type of morality. Ultimate transparency doesn’t create trust. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of trust. Trust is shortcut mechanism to not have to question every single thing we do.

    The government complaint is based on a different topic though. :)

  • http://www.bigsound.org/portnoy/ Portnoy Zheng

    This story is really interesting. Any updates on this case?

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