Smartphone app helps North Koreans avoid state surveillance

North Korea's Arirang 151 smartphone
North Korea’s Arirang 151 smartphone. Image: Daily NK

Amid efforts by the North Korean authorities to monitor and track North Korean residents to prevent them from accessing outside information, some residents are sidestepping these efforts through a smartphone app.

The app is popular among university students in particular, given their interest in such information, sources in North Korea reported.

“The authorities are cracking down on the transfer of unsigned files that have not been approved by the authorities onto North Korean-made cell phones,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK March 19. “They have guessed that there is an increase in people who are watching videos thanks to that app.”

“If someone is caught with illegal videos on their phone or distributing them, their phones may be confiscated, and they may be fined 1,000 to 3,000 yuan, or in extreme cases, spend one to six months in a disciplinary labor center,” she said.

Smartphones generally have an internal verification process to check external files. North Korean smartphones, however, are designed to run only those files verified by the government, and files that have been executed have a tag added to them. The system allows tracking of the entire process of creating, viewing and distributing such files.

Moreover, North Korea’s criminal code states that those who import, produce, distribute, listen to, or view pictures, photos, books, music and movies from abroad violate a law against the import and distribution of culture (Section 183) and a law against decadent acts (Section 184). They can face up to one year of “short-term disciplinary labor” or up to  10 years of “reform through labor.”

“University students are using this app to avoid detection while watching illegal videos,” a source in South Pyongan Province added.

“The app creates a secret code that doesn’t allow outsiders, such as the 109 Permanent Committee (also known as Group 109, a body tasked with cracking down on such content), to open and view the file in question.”

According to the sources, the application is being distributed secretly throughout the country and allows users to view unsigned files by creating a temporary verified signature for document and video files, and also allows users to hide sensitive files and erase the viewing history.

In other words, the app enables users to potentially sidestep the entire tracking and surveillance apparatus put in place by the North Korean authorities in order to access information from the outside world.

“The app, however, can’t be installed on all phones and is different depending on the type of device,” the source explained. “The Arirang phone series, for example, supports the app so people can view whatever they want on them.”

The reason the app has differences is because each device has different levels of security features. The North Korean authorities are continuing to upgrade security features on phones with each new release.

Daily NK’s analysis of the Pyongyang 2418 and Pyongyang 2423 phone models showed that users of the Pyongyang 2418 could access internal folders when connecting to a computer through a USB cable, but that the Pyongyang 2423 didn’t permit such access. New models of smartphones thus appear to block users from putting outside files onto their phone from a computer.

Other similar apps that overcome these restrictions, however, may exist. This shows that a “war of information” is occurring between residents and the regime.

The regime is severely punishing those who access foreign media, as well as those who watch South Korean videos or use South Korean products, a separate source in North Pyongan Province reported.

“Those who use foreign cell phones to talk to Chinese people get in trouble,” he said. “The phones are confiscated and they have to pay upwards of 5,000 to 10,000 yuan.”

Those who commit grave offenses or are scapegoated by the authorities to set an example may face time in a labor correctional facility or political prisoner camp. Section 222 of North Korea’s criminal code states that those who make an illegal international phone call face up to one year in a forced labor camp or up to five years in a forced labor correctional facility.

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