A new report on North Korea reveals that many North Koreans are rooting their Android phones to access unauthorized apps and watch restricted media. The report comes from a human-rights organisation focused on North Korea called Lumen and Martyn Williams, a researcher on North Korea.
The details were gathered from the interviews with two escapees from North Korea. They claimed that they rooted their government-approved phones – Pyongyang 2423 and 2413. This was corroborated by the report authors to be true. The Wired story covers this in detail.
Android for North Koreans
North Korea has their own version of Android which includes a certificate system that requires any file downloaded to be signed with a cryptographic signature from government authorities. The OS automatically delete files which do not have a signature.
The two hackers were able to bypass this restriction. This allowed them to install forbidden apps and watch unauthorized foreign media like South Korean films, TV shows and other media.
These Android phones can only connect to the North Korean intranet. They do not have access to the regular internet. Government intrusion went much further with an app called Trace Viewer app.
Trace Viewer app
The Trace Viewer app snoops on users and randomly takes screenshots and saves them in a hidden folder that is inaccessible to regular users. You cannot view or delete these images. This also instilled a sense of fear in people that the North Korean government authorities are watching them all the time.
The hackers basically installed a jailbreak program via a USB cable. They exploited a vulnerability in Pyongyang 2423 and 2413 models and saved the program in a hidden directory. The hackers got this program from China when they were working there on behalf of the North Korean government. The exact source, however, is not clear but the hacker had then smuggled it back to North Korea. One of the hackers used to study Computer Science at Pyongyang’s elite Kim Il Sung University.
The two hackers also mentioned that they did help a few of their friends to jailbreak and remove restrictions on their phones. Some people in North Korea also run jailbreaking phones as a commercial service. The motive is mostly trivial like changing the screensaver or deleting the surveillance screenshots to free up space on their phones.
Although only a very small percentage of users were jailbreaking their phones, the government has taken note of it. Most of the population is not tech-savvy enough to do this on their own. The hack also involves connecting the phone to a Windows PC via USB. Seeing this the newer versions of the government-approved phones have their USB connections disabled.
Further, the govt passed a new law in late 2020 that forbids “illegally installing a phone manipulation program”. The punishment includes a substantial fine and a 3-month labour camp.
Most of these hacks are not in the name of internet freedom but from a curiosity to find how the restrictions work and find clever workarounds.
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