North Koreans Hack Phones to Gain Access to Banned Media

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For most Around the world, the common practice of “rooting” or “jailbreaking” a phone allows the owner of the device to install apps and software settings that violate the limitations of Apple’s or Google’s operating systems. On the other hand, for a growing number of North Koreans, the same form of hacking allows them to break out of a much larger system of control that seeks to permeate every aspect of their lives and minds.

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On Wednesday, the North Korea-focused advocacy organization Lumen and Martin Williams, a researcher at the Stimson Center’s North Korea-focused think tank Project 38 North, jointly released report on the state of smartphones and telecommunications in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a country that restricts its citizens’ access to information and the Internet more severely than any other country in the world. The report details how millions of government-approved Android smartphones are now infiltrating North Korean society, albeit with digital restrictions that prevent their users from downloading any app or even any file not officially sanctioned by the state. But in this mode of digital repression, the report also provides insight into an unlikely new group: North Korean jailbreakers capable of hacking into these smartphones to covertly regain control of them and open up a world of banned foreign content.

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“There is a kind of ongoing battle between the North Korean government and its citizens over the use of technology: every time a new technology is introduced, people usually find a way to use it for some illegal purpose. But it is not. has really been done with this kind of hack — until now,” says Williams. “Regarding the future of free information in North Korea, it shows that people are still willing to try and break government control.”

Finding out anything about the details of subversion in North Korea – digital or otherwise – is extremely difficult, given the almost hermetic control over information in the Hermit Kingdom. Lumen’s conclusions about the North Korean prison break-in are based on interviews with just two defectors from the country. But Williams says the two fugitives independently described the hacking of their phones and those of other North Koreans, roughly corroborating each other’s stories. Other North Korean researchers who have interviewed defectors say they have heard similar stories.

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Both jailbreakers Lumen and Williams spoke to said they hacked their phones — Chinese-made, government-approved mid-range Android phones known as Pyongyang 2423 and 2413 — primarily to use the devices to watch foreign media and install applications that were not available. t approved by the government. Their hack was designed to bypass the government version of Android on these phones, which for years included a certificate system that requires any file uploaded to the device to be “signed” with a government agency’s cryptographic signature or else it will be immediately and automatically deleted. . Both jailbreakers say they were able to remove this certificate authentication scheme from phones, allowing them to install banned apps such as games, as well as foreign media such as South Korean movies, TV shows, and e-books, which North Koreans have been trying to gain access for decades despite draconian government bans..

In another Orwellian measure, the Pyongyang government-created phone operating system takes screenshots of the device’s screen at random intervals, a surveillance feature designed to give the impression that the user is constantly under surveillance, according to the two defectors. The images from these screenshots are then stored in an inaccessible part of the phone’s memory where they cannot be viewed or deleted. The phone hacking also allowed the two defectors to access and erase these screenshots, they said.

The two hackers told Lumen that they used their jailbreak skills to remove restrictions from friends’ phones as well. They said they also knew people who hacked phones as a commercial service, albeit often for purposes that had less to do with freedom of information than more mundane motives. Some users wanted to, for example, set a certain screensaver on their phone or erase phone surveillance screen shots just to free up memory before selling a second-hand phone.

One of the two jailbreakers, in contrast, said he was partly driven by the same mentality that drives some hackers in the West, according to Sokil Park, Liberty’s regional director for North Korea, who also spoke to the same defector. with whom Lumen spoke. “There doesn’t have to be a super-rational reason for a hack like this,” Park says. “It’s like doing something because you canplaying this game of cat and mouse to test your abilities.”

Exactly what technical methods the two hackers used to bypass the restrictions on their devices is far from clear, given their limited second-hand accounts. But both described connecting the phones to a Windows PC via a USB cable to install a jailbreak tool. One of them mentioned that the Pyongyang 2423 software contained a vulnerability that allowed programs to be installed in a hidden directory. The hacker says they used this quirk to install a hacking program they downloaded while working overseas in China and then smuggled back into North Korea. The other hacker did not specify the source of his hacking tool, but said he was a computer science student at Pyongyang’s elite Kim Il Sung University.

The hackers Lumen describes broadly represent two new classes of people hacking phones in North Korea, says Nat Kretchun, vice president of programs at the Open Technology Foundation and longtime scholar of North Korean media and technology. “There are people who come out of Kim Il Sung University or Kim Chak University or part of the North Korean state who are essentially creating these tools and doing some cheeky things on the side to give themselves some space to undo things that they implemented it themselves,” says Kretchun, who independently interviewed several North Korean prison breakers. “Then there is another class of people who have some computer science literacy and spend so much time with phones that they basically map out exactly how it works in practice and come up with some pretty clever workarounds.”

Cretchun and other researchers say the number of jailbreakers remains fairly low, given the rarity of computer literacy in the country and the difficulty of sharing tools. According to 38 North’s Williams, changes to North Korean phones that disable their USB connections could make hacking even more of a challenge. But he points to a new law passed in late 2020 that bans “illegal installation of a phone-manipulating program” and imposes a fine for owning a smartphone without security measures designed to block “unclean posts,” as the law says.

“While it is difficult to estimate the number of North Koreans modifying their phones, and those interviewed did not appear to see the practice as widespread,” the Lumen report says, “the existence of this particular language would imply that it is happening on a scale that authorities are aware of and potentially concerned about.” “.

Despite the relatively small scale of jailbreaks in North Korea, Liberty in North Korea’s Sokil Park argues that even a small community of phone hackers is a sign that North Koreans have a desire to fight against state control. He adds that jailbreakers around the world should perhaps focus their efforts on creating and distributing hacking tools to help them.

“I think this is a very clear call to action for the international tech community,” Park says. “There is dynamism in this. This type of hack shows that North Koreans are not passive targets of oppression, surveillance, and censorship. The North Koreans create solutions and workarounds so they can find out what the North Korean government doesn’t want. so they can learn, share things the government considers subversive, and ultimately so they can challenge the regime.”


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