North Korea is trying to boost its cyber war capability by sending its best programmers abroad for training in the latest hacking techniques, a defector from the country has told a security conference in Seoul.
According to Kim Heung-kwang, who left the bizarre and secretive Communist state in 2003, North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau cyber warfare unit has increased in size for 500 personnel to as many as 3,000, Reuters has reported him as saying.
“These prodigies are provided with the best environment, and if they graduate with top grades, their parents in the provinces are given the opportunity to live in Pyongyang,” Kim told delegates, speaking as the head of a defector network, North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity.
“After studying at local universities, these students are given the special privilege of continuing their studies abroad,” he said.
Only two weeks ago, details emerged of a North Korean college at which up to 120 students a year are allegedly trained to conduct cyber warfare operations.
News of the North Korean cyber war unit surfaced a few days after a top Internet security and surveillance expert repeated his call for Canada to beef up its Internet security stance.
“The Canadian government is late to the cyber security arena,” said Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab research centre at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Deibert told ITBusiness.ca said the Canadian government has failed to devote adequate resources to tackling cyber security and “barely nods at the importance of foreign policy for cyberspace.”
Canada lags in Net security
Deibert, whose organization was among a group of researchers credited for uncovering a China-based cyber espionage ring known as Ghostnet in 2009, also said Canada’s public sector technology infrastructure was itself compromised by malicious online activity from “foreign jurisdictions.”
He said Canada released its cyber security strategy only last fall and it “pales in comparison to the scope of the challenges, or to equivalent strategies released by our allies, like the United States.”
This, Deibert said, diminishes the Canadian government’s capacity to forcefully and strategically take part in International cyber security issues.
“We are absent in the international arenas where cyberspace governance is debated and territorialized controls are being normalized by China, Russia and other democratically challenged states,” he said.
Canada aiding Repression 2.0
Deibert also brought attention to a multi-billion dollar market on Internet surveillance and monitoring tools which in many cases involve authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia using technologies developed in the United States and Canada. “Tools such as the Canadian-built Netsweeper are being used in Qatar to help authorities censor online activities.”
Deibert calls the trend of using use Internet technology to clamp down on dissent Repression 2.0. In recent months, anti-government protesters in the Middle East have effectively used social media toppling of repressive governments. However authoritarian states, Deibert said, are employing the same tools to keep tabs on and discredit political enemies.
“For instance, they can use Facebook’s complaint mechanism to get the social site to shut down a political opponent’s Facebook page,” he said. “Another strategy involves setting up a bogus anti-government Facebook site to smoke out protesters.”
Helmi Noman, senior researcher at the Citizen Lab the Information Warfare Monitor, also reported that governments and its supporters have used “offensive computer network attacks” against opposition movements. These tactics, he said, supplement the legal, regulatory and other forms of Internet censorship.
In his report entitled The Emergence of Open and Organized Pro-Government Cyber Attacks in the Middle East: The Case of the Syrian Electronic Army, Noman said Syria is the first Arab country to have a public Internet army hosted on its national networks to launch cyber attacks on opposition groups. The Army which launched on may 2011 claims not to be an official entity but rather a group of young Syrians who want to defend their country by fighting back electronically against those who attack Syrian Web sites.
“The Army has been attacking and defacing Syrian and oppositional and ‘hostile’ Western news Web sites,” said Noman.
But Noman has also reported that Western firms are aiding foreign governments with their electronic censorship efforts.
In a report entitled When a Canadian company decides what citizens in the Middle East Can access online, describes how Netsweeper, an Internet content filtering tools developed by Guelph, Ont.-based company is being used by the Qatar government.
He said Internet users in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Kuwait, had reported via Twitter that they were unable to access the blog hosting site tumblr.com.
“I investigated the issue and found that the web site tumblr.com and all blogs hosted by Tumblr are indeed blocked, but interestingly the decision to block the site was actually made in Canada by the company that provides the filtering technology to the ISPs in Qatar, UAE, Yemen and Kuwait,” said Noman in her report.
He said further investigation revealed that Netsweeper categorizes tumblr.com as “journals and blogs” and as “pornography”. As a result content from the site were blocked because the ISPs in the affected countries block pornography.