When I was in Pyongyang a few years ago and had access to a cell phone, I recorded a bunch of the prerecorded messages that you hear when dialing or mis-dialing numbers. I found them to be an interesting glimpse into the view of technology seen in that corner of the world, and helpfully they were translated into English for my edification. I’ve put them up here, and reconstructed the phone tree you get when dialing 999, so that the different messages can be heard in context.
I wanted to try to put into words part of what I appreciate about community, through a description of one of the more unique communities I’ve visited: Slab City.
One of the exciting developments at CCC last month was a talk discussing the copy protection features in the Wulim tablet produced by the Pyongyang Information Center. This post is an attempt to reconcile the features they describe with my experience with devices around Pyongyang and provide some additional context of the environment the device exists within.
As mentioned in the talk, the Wulim tablet, and most of the devices available in Pyongyang for that matter, do a good job of defending against the primary threat model anticipated: of casual dissemination of subversive material. To that end, transfer of content between devices is strictly regulated, with watermarking to track how material has been transferred, a screenshot-based verification systems for visual inspection, and technical limitations on the ability to run externally created Applications.
One of the interesting points of note is that the Wulim, and the earlier pyongyang phone from PIC implement much of their security through a system application and kernel process named ‘Red Flag’, which shares an icon and name with the protection system on the Red Star desktop system. While the code is most likely entirely different (I haven’t actually compared), the interesting point is that these implementations come from two separate labs and entities, indicating that there is potentially coordination or joint compliance with a common set of security requirements.
The Wulim was difficult for the CCC presenters to gain access to. While there were bugs allowing them to view the file system, there was no easy way to casually circumvent the security systems in place. This indicates a general success of the threat model the system was designed to protect against and shows a significant increase in technical proficiency from the 2013/2014 devices. In the initial generations of android-based hardware, most devices had an enabled recovery mode, and the security could generally be breached without more than a computer. The alternative start-up mode found at CCC indicates that the labs are still not deeply familiar with all of the intricacies of Android, and there remain quirks in its operation that they haven’t anticipated. This will likely continue, with a pattern of an attack surface area that continues to shrink as exploits are discovered and make their way back to pyongyang.
The ‘crown jewel’ for this system, it should be noted, is an exploit that the CCC presenters did not claim to have found: the ability to create applications which can be installed on the device without modification. One of the first and most effective security mechanisms employed by the wulim and previous generations of PIC android systems is the requirement that applications be signed with a lab-issued key. While it might be possible that either the security check of applications, or information about the private key might be recovered from a device, this code has likely been checked quite well, and I expect such a major lapse in security to be unlikely.
The presence of this security means that I cannot install an Application on your tablet from an SD card, computer, or via bluetooth transfer if it has not already been pre-approved. This key is potentially shared between KCC and PIC, because the stores offering to install after-market applications around pyongyang have a single list, and are willing to try adding them to systems produced by either lab.
The Wulim is a 2015-2016 model, and evidences a feeling of confidence from the labs that they’ve got the software security at a reasonably appropriate level of security, and are more comfortable opening back up appropriate levels of connectivity between devices. 2013 and 2014 models of tablets and phones were quite limited in connectivity, with bluetooth as a ‘high-end’ option only available on the flag-ship models, and wifi connectivity removed completely. In contrast, the Wulim has models with both bluetooth and wifi, as well as the capability for PPPOE based connectivity to intranet services broader than a single network.
This connectivity extends in two additional ways of note:
- First, there continue to be rumors of mobile data services being tested for broader availability within the country, and the Gateway mechanism in the wulim presents yet another clue towards how this will manifest down the road. While the wulim tablet does not have 3G connectivity, the same software stack has been seen on phones (for instance the pyongyang phone series with the most recent generation ‘2610’ released in 2015).
- Second, the same basic android system is being used for wider installations, and is on display in the science and technology exhibition center. In that context, a custom deployment of tablets with modified software have been installed in both tablet and desktop configuration (desktop through USB peripheral keyboards and mice), and are connected through a LAN-local wifi network for searching the library resources on-site.
The screenshot ‘trace viewer’ mentioned in the CCC talk is really just a file-system viewer of images taken by the same red flag security tool integrated into the system. The notable points here are that screen shots are taken at regular interval on images not in a predefined white-list, so even if new signed applications are created, there will be an alternative system were their presence can be detected even if they’ve been uninstalled by the user prior to inspection. It’s worth noting that it is more effective against the transmission of images and videos containing subversive content then against applications. Applications in android will likely be able to take advantage of screen-security APIs to prevent themselves from appearing in the list. Or, more to the point, once external code is running, the system age is typically 2-3 years behind current android and one of several root methods can be used to escalate privileges and disable the security measures on the device.
While the CCC talk indicates that images and videos can only be viewed on the device they have been created on, this was not what I observed. It was relatively common for citizens to transfer content between devices, including road-maps and pictures of family and friends. The watermarking may be able to indicate lineage, but these sorts of transfer were not restricted or prevented.
Very little underlying data was released from the CCC talk, although they indicate the intention to release some applications and data available on the tablet they have access to. This is unfortunate. The talk, and the general environment has already signaled to Pyongyang that devices are available externally, and much of their reaction to this reality has already occurred. In particular, devices are no longer sold to foreigners within the country regularly, as they were in 2013/14 – with a couple exceptions where a limited software release (without the protections imposed on locals) and on older hardware can be obtained.
The only remaining risk then is the fear of retribution against the individual who brought the device out of the country. The CCC presenters were worried that the device they have may have a serial number tied to an individual. This has not been my experience, and I believe it is highly unlikely. Cellphones with connectivity do need to be attached to a passport at the point of sale, but tablet, as of spring 2015 continue to be sold without registration. The serial numbers observed by the CCC presenters are version numbers common to the image placed on all of the tablets of that generation released.
I’m getting back this week after spending most of the last month Bicycling from Pakistan to China on the Karakoram highway. It was a great trip, full of friendly people, breathtaking mountains, and delicious food.
Last spring after visiting Turkey I spent a week on vacation in Cyprus. I’ve written up some thoughts on the politics at play and the experience of visiting that border. Really a fascinating place.