By Kim Hyo-jin
Lee Ji-yeon, a 28-year-old graduate student, was always a reluctant social media user. On the occasions she did log on, sharing her political thoughts was a welcome break from the endless photos of people's food or puppies.
All this changed this year when she stopped posting about politics.
"What I think, how I live – it can be all dug up. It really scares me," said Lee. "I know the authorities don't investigate everyone's cyber activities, but they can if they want to or deem it necessary."
For her, social media is not a place where the free sharing of information is possible anymore. She could be accused of being slightly paranoid, but her state of mind reflects a growing concern among online users after the Korean prosecution stepped up its monitoring of online portals and mobile messages.
In September, the prosecution established a "cyber libel investigation team" to crack down on the spread of rumors and gossip online. This followed a statement from President Park Geun-hye decrying "malicious online postings that divide the public."
Although the government deemed that the controversial monitoring practice was limited to malicious comments on major websites and online forums, rather than instant messaging services, Korean users remain skeptical about its boundaries.
One such case occurred in October when the minority Labor Party's deputy chief Jung Jin-woo revealed that police had investigated his conversations on KakaoTalk and obtained information from over 300 of his contacts on the popular messenger service. This heightened public concern over online privacy and raised questions about freedom of expression online.
The revelations surrounding Daum KakaoTalk's cooperation with the authorities subsequently created a mass "cyber exodus" that saw over a million South Koreans switch to the German messaging service Telegram, which was believed to be safe from the government's prying eyes.
Over the course of one week, 1.5 million Korean SNS users joined the new app, while as many as 400,000 users left Kakaotalk. Although Telegram was not able to maintain its popularity, the mass online exodus from the country's most popular app reflected genuine concerns about surveillance by the authorities.
Just last month, the CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust revealed that 73 percent of Korean respondents said they were worried that authorities could covertly monitor their online activities.
It said in a democratic South Korea, the Internet should be a liberal environment free of censorship where people can communicate and express their views freely.