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[Newsmaker] NIS in hot water amid hacking allegations

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Published : 2015-07-16 18:40
Updated : 2015-07-16 20:34

South Koreans’ distrust of the National Intelligence Service escalated Thursday after allegations arose that the spy agency had spied on a local lawyer in addition to dozens of other ordinary citizens here, with help from an Italian contractor.

WikiLeaks revealed on Twitter that the NIS may have used malware to spy on the unnamed lawyer, citing emails that NIS agents allegedly exchanged with Hacking Team, a Milan, Italy-based malware surveillance vendor that supplied the spy agency with malware programs.

But the NIS maintained that it had done no wrong despite the growing skepticism.

“(The emails) have nothing to do with us,” an unnamed NIS official was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency.

The statements came one day after NIS chief Lee Byung-ho told lawmakers that the spy agency had never used the malware to spy on private citizens. Lee said the malware had been used to monitor likely North Korean agents residing in the South.

NIS chief Lee Byung-ho (Yonhap)

The ruling bloc also remained in support of the NIS. Ruling Saenuri Party legislators called suspicious opposition lawmakers “instigators” seeking to initiate meaningless political fights.

But the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy appears equally adamant that it will get to the bottom of the allegations, naming former presidential candidate Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo early Wednesday to head a special panel that aims to investigate the scandal.

Ahn, NPAD chair Rep. Moon Jae-in and party whip Rep. Lee Jong-kul early Thursday held a press briefing to demonstrate that hackers could download text messages from a victim’s smartphone in real time.

“Even when the camera on a smartphone is not turned on by the phone’s owner, a hacker could use malware to turn the camera on without the owner knowing it,” Ahn said, as he showed the images from a smartphone being downloaded onto a separate computer monitor.

Ahn, a former presidential candidate, is a software mogul who made millions of dollars by developing anti-malware.

“Smartphones across the country have become instant monitoring tools for NIS agents trying to spy on ordinary citizens,” Moon added.

Ahn and Moon are also widely believed to have been victims of an online smear campaign run by the NIS in the days before the 2012 presidential election.

The NIS was accused of spreading unconfirmed rumors that Ahn and Moon were pro-North Korea figures, allegedly swaying public opinion in favor of Park Geun-hye, who won the election in December 2012.

The public uproar over the ongoing scandal began earlier this week when local reports accused the NIS of wiretapping possibly hundreds of civilians using malware, citing the leaked emails between the intelligence agency and Hacking Team.

“I hope that I can calm public fears over this scandal, just by beginning this probe,” Ahn said.

By Jeong Hunny (hj257@heraldcorp.com)