Security Agents in North Korea Step up Hacks of Foreigners’ Digital Devices

2017-06-01
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Travelers wait for their flights at Pyongyang International Airport in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, April 17, 2017.
Travelers wait for their flights at Pyongyang International Airport in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, April 17, 2017.
AFP

North Korea’s security agency is increasingly hacking into foreign travelers’ mobile phones, laptops, and cameras and buying used computers in bulk from other countries to acquire foreign technology and secret data, sources inside the country said.

“Visitors traveling to North Korea for leisure or on business better check their mobile phones or computers with experts as soon as they go back home,” a senior officer with North Korea’s Ministry of State Security near the border with China told RFA’s Korean Service.

A North Korean executive at a computer service center near the country’s border with China said professional computer and phone hacking agents from the Ministry of State Security are at every airport customs post and in every hotel where foreign travelers stay.

North Korean agents are collecting data from foreigners’ mobile phones, computers, and cameras through both legal and illegal means, sources said.

Foreign visitors in North Korea are required to leave their mobile phones at customs, ports of entry, or airport inspection offices during their stays in the isolated country, which exposes them to inspection and hacking by ministry agents, they said.

Though laptops and cameras are returned to their owners after inspection at customs posts, agents have been disguising themselves as tour guides and hotel managers so they can access travelers’ digital devices when they are left unattended in their rooms or on tour buses. The agents can unlock and hack into the devices in only 20 minutes, sources said.

The Ministry of State Security has intentionally infected foreign travelers’ mobile phones, computers, and cameras with malware since 2013 so that it can attack or penetrate computer networks and major organizations in particular countries, they said.

Because of the dangers of malware penetration, foreign travelers who visit North Korea should have their digital devices checked and debugged by qualified technicians upon their return, sources advised.

Any installed malware can infect other digital devices, they said.

The sources also said that North Korea has been buying used computers from China in bulk and restoring the original data on them.

Technicians format the machines after they extract useful data and provide the computers to North Korean elementary and middle-school computer labs.

The Ministry of State Security, which reports directly to leader Kim Jong Un, is known for its brutality and human rights abuses, experts say.

Other cyberattacks

The North Korean regime has stepped up its hacking activities in recent years, targeting banks worldwide to steal money to fund its nuclear weapons and missile programs, according to security experts.

South Korea blamed the North for attacking computer systems at its banks and broadcasters in 2013, and the United States pointed the finger at Pyongyang for allegedly hacking into film company Sony Pictures the following year. But in the latter case, some cybersecurity experts voiced suspicions that a disgruntled company employee was involved, the Los Angeles Times reported in December 2014.

Major cybersecurity firms have said software used in the WannaCry malware worm that wreaked havoc in computer systems around the world in May bore a resemblance to previous attacks linked to North Korea.

The malware attack infected about 230,000 computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system by encrypting data and demanding ransom payments in digital currency.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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