How Silicon Valley wants to hack North Korea

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2017-08-29
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이름 : NKSC

2014-08-25 10:24:25  |  조회 1094



How do you encourage another Arab Spring in a country where internet access is punishable by death? Over the weekend, a room of engineers, activists, and journalists met in San Francisco to tackle this conundrum at the first-ever Hack North Korea, sponsored by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation with help from the Thiel Foundation.


Held in the airy SOMA warehouse space of a nonprofit coding organization, the event drew about 50 people from the Bay Area and beyond. The mission was to develop clever ways to get media into the hands of North Koreans, and get information out, too.


 "North Korea is often referred to as the ‘darkest corner of the earth,'" said Sarah Wasserman, chief operating officer of the Human Rights Foundation, at the event’s kick-off. "The lack of transparency and block on information flow place limitations on the human mind."



North Korea is often referred to as the ‘darkest corner of the earth'


Half of the country's 24 million people live in abject poverty and starvation. Hundreds of thousands live in massive, city-sized concentration camps that are observable on Google Earth, but otherwise scantily documented because of the regime's deadlock on information. The top 10 percent of North Koreans rich and connected enough to own a TV or radio only receive government propaganda. There's no internet, except for government elite. The price for being caught with a pirated DVD or USB drive is imprisonment or even death, although for some, the risk is worth it.


Park Yeon-mi, a petite 20-year-old woman who now works as a journalist in Seoul, was one of four North Korean defectors who flew to San Francisco to share their stories and judge the entries. In a presentation at the beginning of the hackathon, she described the transformative power of watching, as a teen, what might be considered the cheesiest form of contraband: a black-market DVD copy of Titanic.


"[The regime] taught us the only beautiful story is to die for your country worshipping the dear leader," said Park. "But this was just a human story. I realized all people are not like us." Not long after, she and her parents escaped over an ice-covered river to China, and across the Gobi Desert into Mongolia.


As the hackathon participants, many of them college students from Stanford, broke into groups, the defectors answered their questions about North Korean society.



the cheesiest form of contraband: a black market DVD copy of Titanic


One group toyed with the idea of inspiring a youth movement through social apps. "Could you have something like Snapchat?" one programmer asked.


Kim Heung-kwang, a defector who formerly worked as a computer scientist for the North Korean government, told him that no, you couldn’t. Although about 3 million people have Chinese-made Huawei Android phones, he explained, they are not connected to Wi-Fi. Only about 100 people legally have access to the internet, in what amounts to Kim Jong-un’s inner sanctum.

 "They use it for government tasks only," elaborated Kim, through a translator.


In the absence of networked devices, getting media into North Korea has been primarily a physical task. Heung-kwang described how activists sometimes bribe border guards and send bins full of USB flash drives into the country — a mortally risky proposition for the North Korean on the inside who has volunteered to receive and distribute them.


Another defector, Park Sang-hak, described how he has been using unmanned hot air balloons for the past several years to send media contraband across the South Korean border. His work has earned him the ominous distinction of being named "Enemy Zero" by the North Korean regime, which sent an assassin in 2011 to kill him with a poison needle. (The assassin was intercepted and arrested by the South Koreans.)


When it came time to present the ideas, the mood was light, with people munching on ginger cookies left over from the catered lunch.


One group’s idea involved creating a computer program that could run on a USB drive and appear to be something that it wasn’t, in the likely event that a guard checked it. The organizers of the event requested that any more details about this project be kept secret for obvious reasons.


An audience favorite was the idea of simply using giant slingshots to fling media over the border from China.



One idea was simply using giant slingshots to fling media over the border from China


But the winning idea from Team Skylight was a dual offering that took advantage of new digital technologies. The first idea involved using Raspberry Pi, a granola-bar sized computer, in concert with SDR (software defined radio) to create a small radio that could pick up signals other than the official state-sanctioned ones. The team recommended dropping the computers via balloon.


Their second idea was to smuggle in small satellite dishes that could be used to illegally pick up Skylife, a South Korean satellite broadcaster with 200 channels, including BBC World News and Disney Junior whose signal already reaches North Korea.


Team Skylight was made up of Matthew Lee, a former Googler now working on a stealth startup in San Francisco, and Madison and Justice Suh, 17-year-old home-schooled Korean–American siblings who had traveled all the way from Virginia to participate in the event after learning about it from a Facebook hackers club.


Lee acknowledged that Skylight’s ideas relied on smuggling, itself a risky and difficult operation.


"But the idea is that these technologies, particularly satellite, are going to keep getting smaller and smaller," he said.


All the winners will receive tickets to Seoul to continue work on their ideas in collaboration with the North Korean dissident community.


 Hack North Korea was the brainchild of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Alex Lloyd, a longtime supporter of the Human Rights Foundation. Lloyd became fired up about the issue of North Korea a few years ago after seeing defector Lee Hyeon-seo's TED talk about her harrowing escape from the country. Lloyd said he thinks many Americans tend to be disengaged from the issue of North Korean human rights abuses, partially because they fear the volatility of its leader ("There’s a certain craziness factor there," says Lloyd), or because they feel powerless.


"Until it’s humanized, the way it was for me at that TED talk, there’s this fear," says Lloyd. "If nothing else, the hackathon gets people here thinking and talking about what’s happening in this hermit kingdom."

For now, that may be the most effective hack of all.


By Lessley

THE VERGE/ 08.04.2014 


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