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KakaoTalk tries to rebuild image after privacy flap

The Korean messaging app promises to reduce how long messages are stored and to add end-to-end encryption in an effort to appease worried users.


The maker of Korean mobile messaging app KakaoTalk has vowed to improve its privacy and encryption policies after recently giving the South Korean government access to thousands of private messages.

KakaoTalk boasts of "over 100 million users" worldwide with apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Mac and Windows platforms. KakaoTalk is almost synonymous with social messaging in South Korea, used by nearly 92 percent of smartphone users in the nation.

Two weeks ago it was revealed KakaoTalk had provided access to thousands of private user conversations to the Seoul City Prosecution Office in an effort to probe libelous rumors concerning South Korean President Geun Hye Park.

The news was met with public outcry and concern from users about government surveillance and censorship. Users were so distraught that they began to seek "cyber refuge", fleeing to an encrypted messaging app called Telegram. In the span of one week, nearly 400,000 users migrated to the German-made messaging app.

Now, Daum Kakao -- a newly formed merger between Korean internet giant Daum and KakaoTalk -- is struggling to relieve user tensions stirred by the incident.

In the wake of the uproar, Daum Kakao released a public statement that they would reduce the length of time messages are stored in servers to two to three days to protect private user data. Previously, messages were stored for five to seven days. The company also promised to add a "privacy mode" that would allow for end-to-end encryption.

On Monday, Daum Kakao Co-CEO Sirgoo Lee held an emergency press conference and apologized for the security controversy, stating that "the privacy of our users is our first priority."

Lee went as far as to promise to "stop honoring warrants from government prosecutors looking to access private user data." A bold move that may turn out to be illegal, and it also directly contradicts statements Lee made in an interview the previous week.

Lee had said that Daum Kakao is a legal entity and would therefore cooperate fully with prosecutors if requested with a legal warrant.

So far, the response to Daum Kakao's maneuvers have been flat. Many users felt the apology took longer than it should have. Some have declared that they can no longer trust KakaoTalk nor the Korean government.