Korea guards against online ID theft

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Korea guards against online ID theft

One million ID theft cases drive new policy.

South Korean authorities have introduced a new online identity system in an attempt to combat a wave of identity theft that affected more than one million people earlier this year.

Citizens will now be able to apply for a special Internet Personal Identification Number, or i-PIN, the country's Ministry of Information and Communication announced this week. 

Koreans commonly use their 13-digit citizen registration numbers to verify their identities online. However, due to lax security at internet firms, databases containing these numbers have fallen into the hands of criminals.

The numbers have also come under fire because they contain personal information which the holder may not wish to divulge online, including gender, and place and date of birth.

The new i-PIN numbers do not contain any personal data. In addition, under the new system, citizens will be able to cancel their old i-PIN number and apply for a new one if they suspect that the number has been copied.

Earlier this year, some 1.2 million people, more than two per cent of the country's population, found that their official citizen registration numbers had been used to sign up for accounts in Lineage, a series of popular online games. 

Although there were earlier cases of existing Lineage accounts being hijacked, the victims in the vast majority of recent cases did not even play the game. Instead, their real-world identities were used to sign up without their knowledge.

According to investigators, the bogus Lineage accounts were apparently used by China-based groups to generate virtual items in the game world which were then sold to gamers in exchange for real cash.

One Korean newspaper report later estimated that the group behind the scam could have made in excess of US$10 million from the sales.

New account registrations which provided a free trial period of several days could be obtained simply by entering an ID number into an online form. Lineage publisher and developer NCsoft said that it has since tightened up its registration procedures.

While the new i-PIN system is not yet mandatory, Korea's major internet companies have said they will support it. However, most will initially offer i-PIN registration in parallel with existing systems, according to local media reports.

NCSoft was threatened with a potentially costly class action lawsuit after the Lineage identity thefts, but this appears to have been abandoned. NCSoft also publishes the popular online games Guild Wars and City of Heroes outside Korea. 

As well as the new i-PIN online identity system, public consternation generated by the Lineage incident has driven the Korean government to strengthen ID theft penalties.

Punishments for offenders now include a possible three-year jail sentence, as well as hefty fines.
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