North Korean hackers evade government smartphone restrictions

North Korean tech enthusiasts have software to bypass their local government restrictions on smartphones. This is according to a report from a research organization. The phones are not always hacked to look up prohibited information.

Android smartphone in North Korea

The US research organization Lumen was able to speak to two North Korean tech enthusiasts who testified independently. They said that colleagues and friends helped each other to get rid of the restrictions placed on smartphones by the North Korean government. One source is a local government programmer, while the other is a university student who has had access to computers in North Korea for many years. The hacking of devices does not happen on a large scale, according to the two sources and mainly serves to load applications, file types and photo filters that are banned by the North Korean government.

According to Lumen, both sources use the same way to get rid of the restrictions. They connect the smartphone to a computer via a USB connection and then copy a program to it to gain root access. In order to be able to copy that program on the smartphone, specific actions must first be performed on the device. If they are not executed, the security software of the smartphone can intercept and remove the program. After root access is obtained via the program, all kinds of data can be added, changed or removed from the device. One of the sources indicated that he uses a Chinese application to gain root access, but that multiple applications are used to achieve the same goal.

The use of the root software is reportedly not widespread. One source speaks of 10 percent of the entire North Korean population. The other source states that 30 percent of all of his university acquaintances in North Korea had already made an attempt to get rid of the restrictions.

North Korean phones are reportedly not always hacked to look up government-banned information. Sometimes users want to reactivate disabled functions, such as the dual SIM functionality, so that their device is worth more money on the second-hand market. In other cases, users want to erase images from their smartphone’s buffer, which the North Korean government creates, to mask the age of a device. Sometimes users want to access another startup screen or game.

The North Korean regime forbids its nationals to use the World Wide Web, leaving only a closed intranet with websites and services approved by the regime. Smartphones in the country run on a modified version of open source Android, with restrictions that should prevent North Korean users from engaging in uses not approved by the North Korean regime.