NIS Chief Denies Hacking South Korean Citizens

D-Bo , July 27, 2015, 9:28 a.m.


The chief of the country's top intelligence agency denied monitoring citizens Monday, vowing to step down from his post if there is truth to the allegation, according to a lawmaker. Lee Byung-ho, the head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing at the National Assembly that the NIS has never carried out illegal surveillance of ordinary citizens, according to Won Yoo-chul, floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party.

Nanatech Ltd. is accused of purchasing the hacking software programs from an Italian hacking firm in 2012 on behalf of the NIS. The software programs use Remote Control System (RCS) technology, which allows hackers to manipulate and track smartphones and computers by installing spyware. Opposition lawmakers raised the allegation that the NIS monitored citizens using the RCS to penetrate the country's most-popular mobile messenger KakaoTalk. "There has never been domestic surveillance and monitoring KakaoTalk with the RCS is impossible," Lee said.

The NIS said in the briefing that one of its agents, found dead in an apparent suicide earlier this month, had deleted 51 data items, according to another ruling-party lawmaker. The 45-year-old NIS employee was discovered dead in his car on July 18. Police said the man, identified only by his family name Lim, apparently took his own life after leaving a handwritten will in his car giving details of how the NIS had used the hacking program. "Lim deleted 51 data and (the NIS) delivered enough explanation about this," Rep. Lee Chul-woo told reporters.

As to allegations that the NIS hacked three IP addresses of the country's top mobile carrier SK Telecom Co., the agency argued that it was not for domestic surveillance, according to another ruling party lawmaker. Rep. Park Min-sik of the Saenuri Party, who had attended the briefing, said that the NIS hacked those three IP addresses for research purposes only. At a separate meeting held at the National Assembly, Choi Yang-hee, minister of science, ICT and future planning, said he does not consider RCS programs a monitoring device.

"I think the software is a material that is not a monitoring device," Choi said. The NIS has said it bought the programs that can be used to hack into up to 20 mobile phones simultaneously and said the programs are designed to work through the Italian company. The NIS has also said that it used most of the programs to strengthen cyber warfare capabilities against North Korea. Prosecutors said they have launched an investigation into the allegation and plan to summon the NIS employees involved. Last week, the main opposition party filed a complaint with the Seoul Central Prosecutors' Office. It marks the third time that the prosecution has launched a probe into the NIS, following an election-meddling scandal and a former Seoul city government official's alleged spying for North Korea.

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