How North Korea’s “Red Star OS” Implements Censorship

by Tracy Knauer •

Security researchers have revealed new details about the censorship features in North Korea’s homegrown operating system, Red Star OS, which monitors the files people store on their computer and traces them back to their source.

Red Star OS is an operating developed by the North Korean government for use by the country’s citizens. It is based on Fedora Linux but is heavily modified with special apps and features designed to allow the government to censor users’ behavior.

In a recent presentation titled “Lifting the Fog on Red Star OS,” analysts shared findings about the latest version of the operating system, 3.0. They noted two main features that facilitate censorship by the government:

  • The anti-virus scanner has built-in functionality for identifying files containing types of information that authorities want to ban. That includes data related to dissent against the government. The scanner automatically deletes such files. The scanner cannot be disabled permanently.
  • A “watermarking” program automatically inserts information into files about the computer on which they are stored. This feature makes it possible for authorities to identify on which computers a particular file existed previously. In effect, that means the government can trace files back to their original source, as well as identify people who are sharing certain files with one another.

It is not surprising that the North Korean government would be interested in censorship — what makes Red Star OS stand out are the features that provide offline censorship. Unlike most other governments, which focus on blocking certain types of online content, North Korean authorities want to censor all types of data, including information that is stored locally on a computer but not shared over the Internet (which, at any rate, is of limited availability in North Korea).

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