Battle of the Online Sex Crimes in High-Tech S. Korea
Tony Kim has been paid to watch porn for the last six years, spending his days staring attentively at graphic videos of naked women and sexual liaisons.
He is part of an anti "revenge porn" force in Seoul tasked with finding private sexual images posted online without permission, and removing them.
The 27-year-old first applied for the role at Santa Cruise out of "curiosity," he said.
"But I soon started to feel very uncomfortable, having to watch videos like this all day long, day in and day out.
"Now I'm used to this and feel nothing," he added. "It is just a job now."
The bleak business is part of the so-called "digital laundry" industry thriving in South Korea -- a tech-savvy nation but one whose culture remains chauvinistic and where objectifying women is common.
CEO Kim Ho-Jin set up Santa Cruise in 2008, initially specializing in removing malicious online rumors or inaccurate information for local firms and celebrities.
But in recent years a new type of client has emerged -- women whose private sex videos and photographs were posted online without permission by disgruntled ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands, or malicious acquaintances.
"We monitor various porn, P2P (peer to peer networks) and social media sites around the clock, because such 'leaked videos' could pop up at any time and over and over for years," said chief executive Kim.
- 'Fun game' -
So-called "revenge porn" is a global phenomenon -- one study showed that two percent of Americans who use the internet have had such images posted -- prompting social media giants such as Facebook to deploy counter measures.
In South Korea, 7,325 requests to have intimate videos removed from the internet were made in 2016, according to government figures, a sevenfold increase in four years.
This includes hidden camera footage posted by people using surveillance gadgets or smartphones to film women in changing rooms or public toilets.
Seoul recently announced a sweeping policy package to battle the online sex crimes, including a plan to make a prison term the minimum sentence for such crimes.
Some posters photoshop portraits of a female acquaintance onto pornographic pictures to spread the images online.
Santa Cruise boss Kim explained: "Most offenders are teenage boys or men in their 20s who want to see pretty, popular girls out of their reach being abused and humiliated online."
One victim, whose name was withheld, said she quit her job and cut all contact with friends and family after her video emerged online.
"I was once a happy person who lived a normal life like everyone else," she said in text messages shared by the Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center.
"Now I'm scared of just going outside and scared of the whole world."
A sense of shame runs deep in the conservative, patriarchal nation, where women who appear in the videos face social stigma, said Seo Lang, head of the campaign group.
Seo said the police cyber-crime unit is understaffed and overwhelmed, with the police often blaming the victims -- almost always women -- for not having "behaved properly."
She insisted: "The price to pay for destroying a woman's life is so light here."
- 'Is that you?' -
At present only six percent of convicted uploaders are sentenced to prison, according to a study by the Korea Women Lawyers Association, with around 65 percent being fined.
The anonymous victim said the man who posted their intimate video online was only fined 1 million won ($900), with a website that displayed it ordered to pay a 3 million won penalty.
"These websites scoff at the fine and never change, because they earn enormous profits every month by advertising and spreading videos of women like me," she said.
Many videos are also used as online adverts for prostitution -- illegal in South Korea -- said Jang Woo-Sung, a senior superintendent in the police's cyber bureau.
Around 140 women sign up for Santa Cruise's services each month, according to Kim.
Some have found footage of themselves -- often via a male acquaintance sending them a link asking "Is that you?" -- while others are simply concerned that such images may have been shared.
Once Santa Cruise finds a video, the firm contacts the website operator -- sometimes a gambling or social media site rather than a pornography sharing hub -- to have it taken down, warning of violation of privacy laws.
Many comply quickly, but if they do not, or are unreachable, Santa Cruise asks Seoul's internet regulator to block access to the content, which can take weeks.
"No matter how many times we take it down, it's nearly impossible to delete such videos completely from the internet," he said.
The service costs two million won ($1,750) a month -- almost two-thirds of the country's average wage -- prices that Kim defends on cost grounds, saying the monitoring effort goes on around the clock.
But he fears the worst if clients running out of funds drop out of contact.
"When I've called them, sometimes their parents answered the phone, saying their daughter is dead."