While extremely limited, the culture of hacking has taken root in one of the most isolated places on the planet.
Despite North Korea’s draconian efforts to keep its population away from outside-the-country media, some still find ways to bypass state controls.
According to a report by Lumen, a US-based non-profit, even though outsiders assume North Koreans are cut off from the global internet and are unable to access the hacking know-how, the reality on the ground is different. Escapees told researchers how groups of friends and associates help each other to get around state controls on smartphones.
“The scale of the hacking still appears to be minor, but recent changes to North Korean law indicate national authorities view it as a serious problem,” reads the report.
The report’s authors claim North Koreans with access to laptops root their smartphones using the Chinese app ‘Root 方手.’ One of the escapees, nicknamed Mr. Park, told researchers that his smartphone blocked the phone several times before he succeeded in rooting the device.
“The program wasn’t widely available to the general public […]. The limiting factor was because it was technically challenging. Others didn’t use it simply because they didn’t know how to use it,” Mr. Park explained.
Rooting allows North Koreans to install apps that the state government does not permit. Additionally, a tweaked phone allows modifying apps used to monitor citizens.
For example, every smartphone sold in North Korea has a “Trave View” app installed on the device that automatically takes random screenshots and stores them in the usually inaccessible phone memory.
Officials later can confiscate smartphones and check devices for misuse or installation of prohibited apps and media. Rooting the device allows users to access the screenshots, thus allowing them to hide from the ever-present eye of the state.
Such practices are not very common in the country, with interviewed escapees estimating that around 10% of the population attempted to do so, usually with help from people who’ve been sent to China to learn to program.
A former resident of North Korea researcher dubbed Mr. Kim told researchers that technical complexity and the need to own a PC or a laptop dissuades citizens from meddling with smartphones.
“The major generation are working in their 30s but didn’t get experience with technology when they were growing up. So even if they have computers and know how to use them, they are probably not aware of how to work with a smartphone,” Mr. Kim said.
Reacting to the increasing number of rooted devices, the North Korean government took regulatory measures to penalize attempts to bypass state controls.
The report claims that the law specifies a punishment of at least three months of labor education for the crime of “illegally installing a mobile phone manipulation program.”
It also allows a fine of between 50,000 and 100,000 NK won ($55-$110) if a phone is discovered during an inspection with “an impure publication and a propaganda material blocking program.”
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