North Korean computer-literate citizens, trained by the state itself, appear to be pushing back on the regime’s attempts to censor and control information access on smartphones. While this cat and mouse game between the state and its people has been ongoing for at least the last two decades, 38 North Fellow Martyn Williams and ERNW Security Analyst Niklaus Schiess examine new ways in which the people are winning.
In their report, “Project Reveal: New research into North Korea’s digital control system,” published in April by Lumen, Williams and Schiess discuss how smartphones have proven a particularly difficult technology for the state to control. Efforts to do so have centered around a system that employs digital certificates on approved content. But two North Korean defectors quoted in the report talk about the methods they used to hack the system and disable it, allowing their phones to play any video and accept any app.
The method used represents a more complex challenge to the state and is only possible because the North Korean government has been encouraging students to pursue technical careers such as computer science. The state’s immediate response appears to be the disabling of USB data transfers on smartphones and new laws that deal more harshly with the installation of rogue apps—something that was not a problem in the past.
The report also details the lengths the state has gone to in ensuring Wi-Fi services in Pyongyang are controlled and the growing challenges the state faces in trying to maintain its draconian information controls while integrating digital technologies into everyday life.