For most In the world, the usual practice of “rooting” or “jailbreaking” a phone allows the device owner to install applications and software settings that break the restrictions of Apple or Google’s operating systems. For a growing number of North Koreans, on the other hand, the same form of piracy allows them to step out of a much broader control system, one that seeks to extend to all aspects of their lives and minds.
On Wednesday, human rights organization Lumen and Martyn Williams, a researcher on the 38 North project focused on North Korea at the Stimson Center, jointly released a report on the state of smartphones and telecommunications in the Democratic People’s Republic of China. Korea. , a country that restricts its citizens’ access to information and the Internet more strongly than any other in the world. The report details how millions of government-approved Android-based smartphones are now pervading North Korean society, albeit with digital restrictions that prevent its users from downloading any application or even any file not officially sanctioned by the government. state. But within this regime of digital repression, the report also offers a vision of an unlikely new group: North Korean jailbreakers capable of hacking these smartphones to secretly retrieve them and unlock a world of content foreign prohibited.
“There has been a kind of constant battle between the North Korean government and its citizens over the use of technology: every time a new technology has been introduced, people have usually found a way to use it. “But this has not really been done through this kind of piracy, so far,” Williams said. “In terms of the future of free information in North Korea, it shows that people are still willing to try to break government controls.”
Learning anything about the details of subversive activity in North Korea, digital or not, is notoriously difficult, given the almost hermetic information controls of the Hermit Kingdom. Lumen’s findings on North Korea’s jailbreaking are based on interviews with only two deserters in the country. But Williams says the two fugitives independently described hacking their phones and those of other North Koreans, roughly corroborating each other’s explanation. Other North Korean-focused researchers who have interviewed deserters say they have heard similar stories.
Both jailbreakers interviewed by Lumen and Williams said they hacked their phones (government-approved mid-range Android phones made in China and known as Pyongyang 2423 and 2413), mainly because they could use the devices to view foreign media and install applications that were. t approved by the government. Its hacking was designed to circumvent a government-created version of Android on these phones, which for years included a certificate system that required any files downloaded to the device to be “signed” with a cryptographic signature from government authorities, or otherwise it is immediately. and is automatically removed. Both jailbreakers say they were able to remove this certificate authentication scheme from their phones, which allowed them to install banned applications, such as games, as well as foreign media such as Korean movies, TV shows, and ebooks. to which North Koreans have tried 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 at random intervals, say the two deserters, a surveillance feature designed to instill the feeling that the user is always being monitored. Images in these screenshots are stored in an inaccessible part of the phone storage, where they cannot be viewed or deleted. Jailbreaking the phones also allowed the two defectors to access and delete these surveillance screenshots, they say.