Korean intelligence agency faces fresh wiretapping allegations

South Korea's top intelligence official on Tuesday denied fresh allegations that the country's spy agency had illegally wiretapped citizens with assistance from an Italian contractor.

Local reports alleged the National Intelligence Service had bugged individuals using malware purchased from Hacking Team, a Milan-based surveillance provider. The allegations come amid increasing public distrust in the spy agency, which is accused of meddling in the 2012 presidential elections.

NIS chief Lee Byung-ho confirmed the purchase of the malware, but denied having used them against ordinary citizens, adding that the malware was used to monitor "up to 20 North Korean spies," according to lawmakers who questioned him at a closed-door parliamentary inquiry Tuesday.

The NIS agreed to open its facilities to opposition lawmakers still unconvinced by Lee, at a "to be determined" time and date, main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy Rep. Shin Kyoung-min said. "Hopefully before this week ends," Shin said.

"The malware was purchased by 35 governments worldwide and used in 97 law enforcement agencies," Saenuri Rep. Lee Cheol-woo said. "The information became public because Hacking Team had been hacked themselves."

Local reports earlier Tuesday accused the NIS of obtaining malicious software and using it to hack the smartphones of at least two unnamed local citizens. The reports cited email records between suspected NIS agents and Hacking Team.

The NIS allegedly purchased Samsung smartphones, produced and used locally, to send sample devices to Hacking Team in Milan each year. The Italian firm used the phones to provide technical assistance in designing malware that could infecct the phones and KakaoTalk, a popular messaging app.

Email records available on WikiLeaks also allege that Hacking Team was in contact with Nanatech, a South Korean firm allegedly subcontracted by the NIS, since at least November 2010, suggesting the alleged illegal wiretapping could have been going on for years.

Opposition lawmakers expressed disgust at the allegations.

"This is a serious allegation that must be looked into by a parliamentary investigation," minor opposition Justice Party Rep. Jeong Jin-hoo said.

"The media reports that have raised the allegations appear to be highly credible, especially after having looked at the email records cited in the stories," main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy spokesman Rep. Kim Yung-rok said.

The allegations come amid rising public distrust here in the country's top intelligence agency.

Courts convicted senior NIS officials of conducting online smear campaigns, days before the 2012 presidential election, against liberal candidates running against the conservative Park Geun-hye.

Authorities found records showing that NIS agents had spread unconfirmed rumours on main opposition Reps. Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, accusing them of harbouring pro-North Korea leanings.

Moon and Ahn had campaigned against Park, with Ahn dropping his candidacy before voters hit the polls.

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