North Korea’s ‘RedStar OS’ allows the government to control citizens’ access to websites

Red Star OS, which is North Korea’s own Linux based operating system, is designed to monitor its users and remain resistant to any attempts to modify or otherwise exercise control over it. In other words, this operating system restricts you to a government-approved outlook of the world and allows the government to spy on the citizenry.

Two researchers, Florian Grunow and Niklaus Schiess, who presented their assessment on Sunday of a leaked version of Red Star OS 3, the North Korean Linux distribution at Chaos Communication Congress, a security, art, and politics conference held annually in Hamburg, Germany said, “We found that features implemented in Red Star OS are the wet dream of a surveillance state dictator. It provides a set of surveillance features like the capabilities to watermark different types of files that can be used to track the distribution of documents and multimedia files.”

These German researchers from the security company ERNW downloaded the Red Star OS from a website outside North Korea and examined the code where it was found out that it is a home grown operating system that leaves the government in control of many aspects of its use, including encryption. It has been suggested that North Korea is paranoid that the west will try to penetrate through software, but it is North Korean citizens that should be more worried.

North Korea has been developing its own operating system for more than a decade. While the operating system opts for Mac-like aesthetics, there’s not just a quick copy of Western platforms.

“Kim Jong-il said North Korea should develop a system of their own. This is what they’ve done,” Grunow was quoted as saying by the publication.

So terrified is Pyongyang about Western influence and spying, that rather than accepting the internet as most of us know it, it instead depends on its own basic intranet to provide access to officially sanctioned websites.

The latest version of the platform is based on the Fedora distribution of Linux, with North Korea controlling “most of the code”.

The security firm also found that if users tried to tamper with the platform, such as disabling the antivirus tools, the computer will display an error or reboot.

But one of the more concerning features is the ability for the operating system to watermark every file on a computer or flash drive. This makes it possible to trace files back to individual users — something which the government uses to crack down on legal file sharing. Grunow warns:

It’s definitely privacy invading, it’s not transparent to the user. It’s done stealthily, and touches files you haven’t even opened.

Nat Kretchun, an authority on the spread of foreign media in the isolated country says that such efforts reflect North Korea’s realisation that it needs “new ways to update their surveillance and security procedures to respond to new types of technology and new sources of information.”

The researchers say there is no sign in the operating system of the kinds of cyberattack capability North Korea has been accused of.
“It really looks like they’ve just tried to build an operating system for them, and give the user a basic set of applications,” says Grunow. Otherwise, the platform also has a variety of apps, such as a Korean word processor, a calendar and a music composing application.

North Korea is not the only country to try to develop its own operating system. While Cuba has its National Nova, countries like China, Russia and others have tried to make their own operating system.

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