North Koreans get around restrictions by rooting their Android phones 2022-04-29 05:19:45


Information Security

tl; DR

  • A new report has revealed in detail how some North Koreans have rooted their Android phones.
  • The defectors said that people rooted their phones to install unauthorized apps and consume unauthorized media files.

Android phones in North Korea are subject to a lot of restrictions and monitoring programs, but it turns out that some citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

a new report By North Korea-focused human rights organization Lumen and researcher Martyn Williams (h/t: wired) that some North Korean citizens are rooting their Android phones in order to install unapproved apps and consume unauthorized media.

Two North Korean defectors interviewed as part of the report confirmed that they rooted their government-approved smartphones in Pyongyang 2423 and Pyongyang 2413, adding that friends and peers helped each other root the smartphones as well.

North Korea takes on Android phones

Saying this, the fugitives did not believe this practice was widespread, because their background helped them gain this knowledge. One of the fugitives worked as a programmer for a North Korean-backed company in China and was able to smuggle the software back home. Meanwhile, the other was an undergraduate and part of a group of computer science students who share software and knowledge among themselves.

Related: Everything you need to know about rooting your Android device

Certified smartphones like these models run a customized version of Android with a number of limitations. This only includes connectivity to North Korea’s intranet (isolating it from the Internet itself), and a signature system to prevent unauthorized applications and content from running.

The most intrusive inclusion on these phones is the so-called Trace Viewer app that snoops on users. The program randomly captures and saves photos, with users not being able to delete these photos.

Bypass official restrictions

Pyongyang 2425 Lumen . Project Uncovered

North Korean defectors have briefly explained their method of bypassing these restrictions on Android phones. They connected the phone to a computer via a USB cable and tricked the device into accepting the installation of a rooting app.

The interviewees added that rooting was done for several reasons. These reasons included installing unauthorized apps and photo filters, consuming unauthorized media files, switching to a new startup screen, re-enable dual SIM support, and deleting photos taken by Trace Viewer monitoring software. One fugitive added that some people who know how to root these phones and install/remove content will offer their services to less tech-savvy users.

Interestingly enough, the government responded with some of the latest smartphones. The report found that the latest Pyongyang 2425 smartphone (shown above) has turned off the ability to connect to a computer via USB, where you can see the phone listed on the computer but not access its file system at all.

The government also issued a three-month prison sentence in a labor camp for people caught with a phone with “mobile phone manipulation software”. However, we’re guessing this cat-and-mouse game will continue between government and tech-savvy citizens.