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This unremarkable Android phone gives us a rare glimpse of life inside North Korea

A rather basic Android smartphone unique to North Korea gives an insight into how life is like under an oppressive regime.

Hackernoon writer Christian Budde Christensen was given a carefully orchestrated visit to North Korea where he got his hands on the Arirang 151 smartphone, which was released in 2016.

Given how the free-flow of information is one of the things that can topple a brutal socialist regime such as that run by North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Young-un, one would expect that smartphones would be an enemy-of-the-state in North Korea.

But Christensen noted how the Arirang 151 runs a heavily modified version of Android 4.4.2 that seemingly prevents the information from being passed from the phone to a computer through Bluetooth. And Christensen found that when he inserted a SIM card the phone shutdown.

There’s also no Wi-Fi on the phone to enable data transfer, and Christensen highlighted how he encountered no Wi-Fi hotspots while on his travels.

Eventually, he was able to get data from the phone to a computer via a USB connection but then couldn’t put any data on the phone. Essentially, this would indicate that there are safeguards to prevent data from being passed onto foreign devices.

Christensen doesn’t believe the handset was made in North Korea, despite claims it was. But he does suspect a lot of modifications have been made to the phone within the country.

He also observed that while an app locker is pre-installed it doesn’t facilitate any locking beyond a simple lock-screen and messages are not encrypted end-to-end,

Christensen suggests that this is a means to make North Koreans feel like their smartphones are more secure than they are. This gives the impression that the phone’s basic security could be overcome by government law enforcement and allow for snooping on citizens’ communications to be carried out.

Despite North Korea attempting to show off its adoption of communications technology, Christensen’s experience with the Arirang 151 shows how limited the access to information and data sharing is in North Korea.

This helps give a glimpse into how the lives of North Koreans appear to be fairly isolated from the wider world and the near-instant communication that open access to the internet and smartphones facilitates.  

It’s almost the polar opposite of Western nations; in North Korea technology seems to be a government tool in limiting data sharing. Meanwhile, in the likes of the US And UK technology can often be seen as a barrier to government snooping with the likes of Apple refusing to lift encryption on an iPhone to aid an FBI investigation, citing the dangerous precedent it would create.

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