The availability of the Internet and smartphones has transformed societies around the world. Citizens now can access knowledge from around the globe, seek out independent news coverage and voice their opinion with little filter. While state controls exist to varying degrees in some countries, nowhere is the control as complete and restrictive as North Korea.

While the smartphones available in Pyongyang are little different to those available in other countries, the installation of custom software, a closed communications network and constant monitoring, mean the device in North Korea is useful to consumers for little more than consumption of state-approved propaganda.

However, for the state, smartphones constitute a potentially potent vector for remote surveillance at scale. To date, there is no evidence that metadata is being exploited at a large scale for surveillance purposes, but this is an area that must be monitored.

Much of North Korea’s information control system is based on the same technologies that underpin the Internet and smartphones globally but rather than expanding access to knowledge, North Korean engineers have removed or modified features to block it.

In our research, we examined two current North Korean devices to determine recent changes in the information control landscape.