Some North Koreans turn to iPhones to avoid government surveillance

North Koreans peruse cell phones on offer
North Koreans peruse cell phones on offer. Image: Sogwang

Apple iPhones are being used by some North Korean citizens to avoid government monitoring of their text messages and voice calls, according to local sources.

“The North Korean authorities can monitor many of the Chinese smartphones, so some people [who use smuggled phones to connect to Chinese cellular towers across the border] are turning to iPhones to communicate with each other,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK.  “They say you can securely send and receive text messages on iPhones.”

The source also said that North Koreans are learning that sending text messages between iPhones is a more secure way to communicate with each other. “People tell each other to use iPhones whenever there’s a need to talk about something sensitive,” he said.

iPhone users can access the Apple messaging app iMessage to send and receive text messages. According to Apple’s “iOS Security” guide, text messages sent through iMessage are encrypted, so no one outside the conversation can see them. The guide notes, however, that the messages may not be encrypted properly in places with poor internet connection.

According to the American market share tracking company Statcounter, 7.5% of all phones in North Korea use the Apple iPhone iOS operating system, while 7.1% of all computers in the country use OS X, Apple’s desktop computer operating system. The statistics confirm that Apple products are being used inside North Korea.

Kim Jong Un appears with a Mac computer and keyboard in March 2013
Kim Jong Un appears with a Mac computer and keyboard in March 2013. Image: Rodong Sinmun

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also appears to be fond of Apple products. The Rodong Shinmun and state-produced films released in 2013 and 2016 have shown Kim using what appear to be a Macbook and Macbook Pro on separate occasions.

His father Kim Jong Il was also a Macbook Pro user according to Sophie Schmidt who visited North Korea in 2013 with her father, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Schmidt claimed that a 15-inch Macbook Pro was on display at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace as part of the elder Kim’s memorabilia.

Ordinary North Koreans, however, are not freely permitted to own or use iPhones. The North Korean authorities consider the use of the “enemy’s products” a vector by which residents can be influenced by “anti-Socialist” culture.

Daily NK recently reported that the wife of a military officer was recently interrogated by local authorities for carrying a handbag with the word “USA” on it in South Pyongan Province.

“People can’t use [Apple] products in the open. They have to use them secretly,” a source in South Pyongan Province said, adding that “people also use iPads in secret.”

Iphone's end-to-end encryption system
Iphone’s end-to-end encryption system. Image: iOS security

iPhones are widely known to be protected by a powerful security system. The phone’s entire operating system is encrypted, from the booting process to the phone’s updating process. Files on the phone are also encrypted, so no external parties can access them.

In 2016, the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) faced difficulties in an investigation into a suspected terrorist when it was unable to crack the encryption on the suspected terrorist’s iPhone.