Chat App Kakao Talk Begins Offering Opt-In Encryption Following Recent Privacy Storm

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Daum Kakao, the newly merged Korean entity behind Kakao Talk, has introduced a new end-to-end encryption feature on the chat app following controversy around user data in recent months.

The company is rolling out a new ‘Secret Chat’ mode today, which is landing on Android devices first (Android dominates in Korea) with iOS set to follow “soon”, the company said. The new feature is activated in two ways: via a drop down menu inside existing chats or a dedicated button that launches a new Secret Chat.

The feature is initially live for one-on-one conversations only, but Daum Kakao says it will become an option for group chats within the first three months of next year. The company also made a small privacy tweak to let users to leave group chats for good, preventing them from being re-added.

[Image 1] Starting Secret Chat from Chatroom on KakaoTalk

Kakao Talk has over 150 million registered users, but it is strongest in Korea where it is said to be installed on more than 95 percent of smartphones. That dominance was tested in October when media reported that President Park Geun-hye was preparing to crack down on the chat app and get hold of user data from its parent company.

That sent significant numbers of Kakao Talk users fleeing to ‘safer’ apps. Security focused Telegram seemed to profit the most, drawing in a reported 1.5 million new registrations in Korea within days of the saga erupting.

Ultimately, Daum Kakao denied that it handed over information and it pledged to introduce steps to make users more aware of their data. That included the introduction of a Google-like transparency report to relay all information requests in Korea, and this encryption feature rolling out now.

The company said in a statement today that the encryption keys are stored locally on users’ devices which makes the Secret Chat data inaccessible, even to Daum Kakao:

Secret Chat ensures heightened confidentiality of user conversations by providing end-to-end encryption, where the decryption key for chat messages is stored in the user’s device making the messages only readable by the users involved in the conversation. Since the decryption key is stored only in the device, other parties cannot access conversations through any outside point—even through servers.

The privacy storm has settled down, but nonetheless it is worth noting that Kakao Talk is not the only chat app provider to get more serious about safeguarding user data lately.

WhatsApp, the world’s most used messaging app, introduced an unprecedented mandatory encryption feature in partnership with WhisperSystems recently. While Line, a rival in Japan, added an opt-in feature for its popular messaging service back in July.

The Edward Snowden NSA leaks and privacy-focused apps like Telegram have helped raise awareness of the importance of encryption worldwide but it remains to be seen how many users will opt-in to use such features. WhatsApp’s move to make encryption standard across all chats is a step in a better direction but, as WhisperSystems itself admitted, introducing a feature with the associated demands and at the scale of hundreds of millions of active users is no easy thing.