N. Korea starts to play Big Brother

North Korea is putting surveillance cameras in schools and workplaces and collecting fingerprints, photographs and other biometric information from its citizens in a technology-driven push to monitor its population even more closely, a report said.

The state’s growing use of digital surveillance tools, which combine equipment imported from China with domestically developed software, threatens to erase many of the small spaces North Koreans have left to engage in private business activities, access foreign media and secretly criticise their government, the researchers wrote.

But the isolated country’s digital ambitions have to contend with poor electricity supplies and low network connectivity. Those challenges and a history of reliance on human methods of spying on its citizens, mean that digital surveillance isn’t yet as pervasive as in China, according to the report, published by the North Korea-focused website 38 North.

The study’s findings align with widely held views that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is stepping up efforts to tighten the state’s control of its citizens and promote loyalty to his regime.

These efforts were boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic, during which the North imposed stringent border controls that were maintained for three years before a cautious reopening in 2023.

New laws and recent reports of harsher punishments suggest that the government is cracking down on foreign influence and imported media, likely helped by fences and electronic monitoring systems installed on the border with China during the pandemic.

“Having seen that it’s possible to close the border this tightly, I think they are now keen to keep it that way,” said Martyn Williams, an analyst who co-authored the study with Natalia Slavney.

“In terms of broader surveillance across the country, the pandemic could have played a part, but I think a much bigger role has been played by the fast-reducing cost of surveillance equipment,” Williams said.

The report examined North Korean surveillance technologies through information gained from domestic and international media coverage and publicly-announced research at North Korean universities and state organisations. The researchers also said they interviewed 40 North Korean escapees about the surveillance they experienced when they lived in the country and, through unspecified partners, surveyed 100 current North Korean residents in 2023 via phone, text messages and other forms of encrypted communication to ensure their safety.

State media reports show that video surveillance is becoming more common at schools, workplaces and airports.

The cameras are mostly sourced from Chinese vendors and range from basic video feeds to more advanced models that include features like face recognition.

Experts have warned that China is exporting the technology that powers its AI-powered surveillance to countries around the world.

Meanwhile, the state is also building detailed biometric profiles of its citizens. The latest version of the national identification cards comes in a smartcard format and requires citizens to provide fingerprints, facial photographs and, at least according to one report, take a blood test. — AP

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