Saturday, 23 May 2015 00:00

South Korean government mandates smartphone spy apps for minors

Mobile monitoring software products, or spy apps, as they commonly called, have been often been at the center of controversy since they first began appearing on the market, shortly after smartphones were introduced. Some view them as being invasive snooping technology, while others consider them to be essential parenting tools.

Now it appears that the South Korean government falls in the latter category. Officials there have recently issued a mandate requiring parents to install spy apps on all new smartphones purchased for children under the age of 18.

Smart Sheriff

The government has gone so far as to fund the development of such an app. Called “Smart Sheriff,” the app is one of at least a dozen other smartphone monitoring apps that South Korean authorities have approved for pre-installation on phones purchased for minors.

A translation of the new law reads, in part:

Article 37-8 (Methods and Procedures for Providing Means to Block Media Products Harmful to Juveniles, etc.)

(1) According to Article 32-7(1) of the Act, a telecommunication business operator entering into a contract on telecommunications service with a juvenile under the Juvenile Protection Act must provide means to block the juvenile's access to the media products harmful to juveniles under the Juvenile Protection Act and the illegal obscene information under Article 44-7(1)1 of the ICNA ("Information harmful to juveniles") through the telecommunication service on the juvenile's mobile communications device such as a software blocking information harmful to juveniles.

(2) Procedures prescribed below must be followed when providing the blocking means under (1):

1. At the point of signing the contract:
a. Notification to the juvenile and his/her legal representative regarding types and features of the blocking means; and
b. Check on the installation of the blocking means.
3. After closing the contract: Monthly notification to the legal representative if the blocking means was deleted or had not been operated for more than 15 days.

It’s interesting news that any government would issue such a mandate, and it’s perhaps even more surprising that the South Korean officials have chosen to fund the development of a spy app. So how does Smart Sheriff stack up against the other monitoring apps already available on the market?

Should a government be in the spy app development business?

At the moment, that question is a bit difficult to answer. I have been unable so far to find a good review of Smart Sheriff

However, I have been able to get a basic idea by visiting the Google Play app store where the product is listed. There is a brief description of features - whether or not it is a complete list of its functions is not clear, but if it truly is a full list, then Smart Sheriff is a very limited app, indeed - at least when compared to other popular spy apps on the market, such as mSpy and FlexiSpy.

Another clue that the app really is very limited and possibly badly designed is the fact that out of the nearly 5000 people who rated Smart Sheriff on the Google Play page where it is listed, 3870 of them gave it a rating of one out of five stars. The last time I checked, the overall rating was only 1.7 out of 5 stars.

That poor rating makes me believe that the product is pretty crappy - it could be unpopular just because it is limited, but a rating that low makes me guess that there are other problems associated with it, as well. Perhaps they rushed its development and there are still bugs, it’s difficult to say at this point, but I know this much: there are a lot of badly-designed spy apps on the market and that’s why products like mSpy and FlexiSpy are so popular, even though they aren’t as cheap as some of the others. As always, you get what you pay for.

spy appsWhat we do know about Smart Sheriff

One of the things people should know about Smart Sheriff is that currently it only works on Android phones, so iOS users will have to purchase one of the other approved apps.

In terms of features, as I mentioned before I have not yet been able to obtain a definitive list but I do know that Smart Sheriff has at least a few of the basic features you will see with almost any spy app available on the market.

These features include:

●    The ability for parents to block access to designated web sites and apps
●    The ability to set time limits on Internet access
●    Built-in filters that block porn sites and other URLs deemed by the South Korean government as potentially “harmful” for children

If that truly is a full listing of features, it’s no wonder the app has received such low ratings from users who purchased it. Compared to an app like FlexiSpy, for instance, which boasts more than 150 features, this list of functions is very limited indeed.

Other popular apps offer standard features such as GPS location monitoring, which is just one of the very useful features for parents who wish to protect and monitor their children. Spy apps like FlexiSpy and mSpy also allow parents to view chats, photos, videos and a wealth of other content stored on a child’s phone. If you’re going to install monitoring software on your kid’s phone, you might as well choose a product that offers more than a handful of limited features, like Smart Sheriff apparently fails to do.

Are we witnessing the beginning of a new trend?

The new mandate issued by South Korea requiring the installation of spy apps on smartphones given to children is unique - no other government has introduced such regulations, at least of yet.

Other countries do have Internet filtering, but as an Associated Press article on the subject noted, it is rare for them to be enforced by law. “Japan enacted a law in 2009 but unlike South Korea it allows parents to opt out,” the AP article states.

It’s somewhat understandable that the South Koreans would initiate such a mandate. South Korea has been called the “most connected” country on the planet.

A few relevant statistics:

●    Eight out of 10 South Koreans aged 18 and under have smartphones
●    More than 70 percent of South Korean elementary school students have smartphones
●    Nearly half a million spy apps have been purchased in South Korea to date, and that number is expected to rise sharply with the issuance of the new regulations


As I mentioned before, many parents throughout the world have come to depend on spy apps to protect their kids from the many potential dangers associated with being online. Addiction to video games, Internet bullying, sexting among teens and the threat posed by sexual predators are all real concerns that every parent should be aware of and taking measures to address.

Monitoring apps offer parents an easy and effective way to keep a close eye on their kids’ online behavior, but whether or not governments should begin requiring such monitoring is a question that is still very much open to debate.

It should be interesting to see if other countries follow suit and if we are indeed seeing the beginnings of a trend, but whether or not they are required by law, I believe parents who decide to invest in a spy app should spend the extra money in purchasing one that performs well and offers a large number of useful features.

Last modified on Sunday, 31 May 2015 17:00