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North Koreans are getting around restrictions by rooting their Android phones

North Korean smartphones have surveillance programs and loads of restrictions, but citizens are finding ways around this.
By
April 29, 2022
Information security
TL;DR
  • A new report has detailed how some North Koreans rooted their Android phones.
  • Escapees said people rooted their phones to install unauthorized apps and consume unauthorized media files.

Android phones in North Korea are subjected to plenty of restrictions and surveillance software, 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) has revealed that some North Korean citizens are rooting their Android phones in order to install unapproved apps and consume unauthorized media.

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

North Korea’s take on Android phones

In saying so, the escapees didn’t think the practice was widespread, as their background helped them acquire this knowledge. One of the escapees worked as a programmer for a North Korean-backed enterprise in China and was able to smuggle software back home. Meanwhile, the other was a university student and part of a group of computer science students that shared software and knowledge amongst themselves.

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

Approved smartphones like these models run a customized version of Android with a number of restrictions. This includes only connecting to North Korea’s intranet (being walled off from the internet itself), and a signature system to prevent unapproved apps and content from running.

The most intrusive inclusion on these phones is a so-called Trace Viewer app that snoops on users. The program randomly snaps and saves photos, with users unable to delete these images.

Bypassing official restrictions

The North Korean escapees briefly outlined their method of bypassing these restrictions on the Android phones. They connected the phone to a PC via USB cable and tricked the device into accepting the installation of a rooting app.

The interviewees added that rooting was done for a variety of reasons. These reasons included installing unauthorized apps and photo filters, consuming unauthorized media files, switching to a new startup screen, re-enabling dual-SIM support, and deleting images snapped by the Trace Viewer surveillance software. One of the escapees added that some people who knew how to root these phones and install/remove content would offer their services to less tech-savvy users.

Interestingly enough, the government has struck back with some of the latest smartphones. The report found that the newer Pyongyang 2425 smartphone (seen above) has locked down the ability to connect to a PC via USB, as you can see the phone listed on the computer but can’t access its file system at all.

The government has also introduced a three month labor camp sentence for people caught with a phone that has a “mobile phone manipulation program.” Nevertheless, we’re guessing that this cat-and-mouse game will continue between the government and tech-savvy citizens.