• United States



Bugged guesthouse: Eric Schmidt’s daughter reveals North Korea trip details

Jan 20, 20136 mins
Data and Information SecurityMalwareMicrosoft

Sophie Schmidt, daughter of Google Chief Eric Schmidt, revealed intriguing tidbits of their recent visit to North Korea such as a bugged guesthouse. They were afraid of malware, so they left their laptops and smartphones behind in China. She said Internet connectivity is inevitable and North Korea can’t keep it out.

In North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the only people with access to the Internet are those with “special authorization.” Very few details have been revealed about what happened during Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s recent visit to North Korea…other than that he urged DPRK to “embrace” open access to the Internet. The trip wasn’t for Google, since a Google spokeswoman told Wired, “We do not comment on personal travel.” But now his daughter has provided interesting insight by writing a blog post called “It might not get weirder than this” — Sophie in North Korea.

In case you don’t know, before Schmidt and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson visited North Korea, the State Department advised against it. Richardson told CBS This Morning, “I don’t work for the U.S. government; neither does Eric Schmidt.” So then State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “They are private citizens. They are traveling in an unofficial capacity. They are not going to be accompanied by any U.S. officials. They are not carrying any messages from us.”

Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie wrote about her impressions of Pyongyang and DPRK.

“Speaking as a tech person, just getting to speak to officials in the most closed country on earth about the virtues of the Internet–and having them (appear to) listen–seemed extraordinary.”

She included many interesting tidbits about their visit to North Korea, including that none in the nine-person delegation to DPRK had tech along on the visit.  

We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they’d be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.

Ms Schmidt included an image of her “favorite” customs declaration form which did ask about GPS, cell phones, hand phones and “other communication means.” She warned that you should “leave your ‘killing device’ and ‘publishings of all kinds’ at home.”

Sophie Schmidt gives what seems like an honest and sometimes amusing opinion. “Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble,” she wrote. “They’re hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it.” To better explain the situation in DPRK, she added, “The best description we could come up with: it’s like The Truman Show, at country scale.” The group was assigned two DPRK-approved “minders” and had “zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders.”

Before traveling, the group received security advice about lodgings in North Korea.

We were told well ahead of time to assume that everything was bugged: phones, cars, rooms, meetings, restaurants and who knows what else. I looked for cameras in the room but came up short. But then, why bother with cameras when you have minders?

My father’s reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.

Her frank assessment also included “an aside: For a country that banned religion, and has sent thousands of practicing Christians to prison camps, the Christmas trees were rather incongruous.” She has posted numerous photos and intriguing details. In the ultimate “police state,” the only art and music are government-approved. It’s nearly impossible to imagine living in such conditions, with no Internet, no privacy and government-sponsored news. She added, “Trucks equipped with loudspeakers roam the streets. ‘For the propaganda,’ Minder 2 told me, with a tone that suggested You idiot.”

On the tech front:

Everything that is accessible is accessible only in special tiers.

Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles (but not smart phones).

North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet. Our understanding is that some university students have access to this.

That’s not to say everyone is without ‘real’ Internet in North Korea. Last spring when it was announced that America is losing the cyberwar and China has hacked every major U.S. company, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Army General James Thurman, told Congress that the North Korea military was becoming better at cyberwarfare.

“North Korea employs sophisticated computer hackers trained to launch cyber infiltration and cyber attacks.” He added that cyber attacks from North Korea’s military “have been increasingly employed against a variety of targets including military, governmental, educational and commercial institutions.”

At one point, Sophie Schmidt talked about her father answering a few tech questions.

Eric fielded questions like, “When is the next version of Android coming out?” and “Can you help us with e-Settlement so that we can put North Korean apps on Android Market?”  Answers: soon, and No, silly North Koreans, you’re under international bank sanctions.

Lastly, in a bit of good news for DPRK, Ms Schmidt wrote:

They seemed to acknowledge that connectivity is coming, and that they can’t hope to keep it out. Indeed, some seemed to understand that it’s only with connectivity that their country has a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping up with the 21st century. But we’ll have to wait and see what direction they choose to take.

It’s an excellent overview and the most eye-opening news yet of the groups’ trip to North Korea. I highly recommend you take the time to read Sophie Schmidt’s post. In fact, you may chuckle at the snarky opening line that ridicules Google sites and mentions “f’d up layouts.”

Like this? Here’s more posts:
  • Critical Infrastructure Malware Infections: From ICS-CERT report to SCADA Strangelove
  • Police State starts in tiny Arkansas town
  • IE fix easily broken; Espionage hacker gang has endless supply of zero-days
  • Chrome, Firefox, IE to block fraudulent digital certificate
  • Don’t faint: Microsoft applauds hacker for Windows RT jailbreaking attempt
  • Oracle releases emergency Java patch; experts warn flaws may take 2 years to fix
  • Valve’s Steam Box controllers may use biometrics and gaze tracking
  • 20 Seconds to jailbreak Windows RT
  • Phys.Org Hacked, serving up malware? Google blocks site, but Bing doesn’t
  • Unpatched TRENDnet IP cameras still provide a real-time Peeping Tom paradise
  • Meet Red October, the latest cyber-spy malware for digital espionage

Follow me on Twitter @PrivacyFanatic

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.