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South Korea Mandates Smartphone Spying on Children

If you live in North America or Europe, you can opt to keep tabs on your kids via surreptitious smartphone-monitoring software. If you live in South Korea, the government encourages you to do so. A new regulation in the East Asian country requires any new smartphone for a recipient under the age of 18 to come pre-installed with intrusive spyware that lets parents see what young South Koreans are up to at any given time.

The report comes by way of The Associated Press, which highlighted a new South Korean app known as Smart Sheriff. The South Korean government paid for the development of Smart Sheriff after the Korea Communications Commission ruled that every new smartphone for a person under 18 had to come with some kind of parental-monitoring software installed.

MORE: Best Parental-Control Apps

If you're familiar with Western parental monitoring apps, Smart Sheriff has similar features. Parents can monitor where their children are, which apps they're using, what kind of media they're consuming and the content of the conversations they're having, all without the child's knowledge or permission. By default, the software functions the same way whether a child is 5 or 15. Smart Sheriff will also alert parents if terms like "bullying," "pregnancy" or "suicide" come up in conversations.

Smart Sheriff is not the only parental-monitoring app available in the Korean language; the AP cites more than a dozen others, and says that collectively they have been downloaded nearly half a million times, mostly before the mandate came into effect last month.

There is one way around the South Korean edict: Existing phones do not require Smart Sheriff. South Korean parents who prefer not to spy on their children can always let a child keep his or her current phone, or give them a feature phone. This is admittedly a cumbersome workaround, especially for young children who will be dependent on their parents' phones for many years to come.

South Korean parents are said to be split on whether the measure is a good thing. At its best, parental-monitoring software can help keep children out of dangerous situations and improve communication with parents. At its worst, though, it can allow overbearing parents to micromanage their children's lives.

There's a secondary concern, too. If the government requires monitoring software on children's phones, what's to stop it from requiring similar software on adults' phones next?

Children's privacy rights are already a hot topic in the west after the mSpy data breach and similar issues involving parental-monitoring software. The line between spying and safety is not clear when it comes to the under-18 crowd, but expect the issue to rear its ugly head again before too long.

Marshall Honorof is a senior writer for Tom's Guide. Contact him at mhonorof@tomsguide.com. Follow him @marshallhonorof. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.