Digital, human surveillance could extinguish ‘all but the tiniest’ freedoms for N. Koreans: U.S. think tank

WASHINGTON, The North Korean regime's growing use of digital technology, coupled with its extensive human surveillance system, could make "all but the tiniest freedoms" for its people evaporate, a U.S. think tank warned Tuesday, saying Pyongyang is moving toward a "panopticon" state. 38 North, a program on North Korea-related analysis at the Stimson Center, published an in-depth report on the reclusive state's evolving digital technology, its societal impact and risks associated with the increasingly pervasive technology. The report is based on yearslong research efforts that drew on North Korean media and academic journals, satellite imagery analysis, an advisory group of technology experts and various interviews, according to Natalia Slavney, an analyst at the think tank and co-author of the report. "The state is not all-seeing yet. Small spaces exist that allow North Koreans to engage in illicit business activities, consume foreign media and privately criticize the government," the report said. "The c ontinued adoption of digital technology threatens to erase many of these spaces. A combination of the heavy state control exerted by North Korea and pervasive digital surveillance, such as that carried out in China, could extinguish all but the tiniest freedoms for the North Korean people," it added. Martyn Williams, a senior fellow at the center and the other co-author, said that the report started from a key question: Is North Korea exploiting digital technology from China to supplement its human-level surveillance system, one of the world's largest ones? The researchers' answer to the question was elucidated in the report. Noting that North Koreans are among the world's "most tightly controlled and surveilled" people, the report pointed out that digital technology brings benefits like smartphones enabling electronic payments and set-top boxes for new steaming options, but it comes "at a price." "As these technologies continue to roll out, the digital footprint for North Korean citizens becomes larger, and the North Korean state's ability to gain a deeper insight into people's lives grows," the report said. It underscored that Pyongyang is building surveillance capabilities that reach across "various facets of public and private life." "While the state may not yet have the capacity to fully utilize all the data it can collect, it is moving towards even greater surveillance of its citizens, enhanced by digital technology," it said, noting that the move is underpinned by several decades of research into biometric technology. Among the report's key findings is the fact that the North's work on digital surveillance technologies has been ongoing for years. "Some of the earliest work in the late 1990s was around fingerprint recognition, but this has progressed to more advanced technology, such as facial and license plate recognition," the report said. "The work has led to domestically developed software and hardware products that utilize biometric data to verify identity and track people and vehicles in publi c spaces." It also highlighted that the North is collecting data for a national biometric database. It particularly mentioned the North's latest version of a national identification (ID) card in a smartcard format, whose renewal requires citizens to provide fingerprints, have their photos taken, and in some cases take a blood test. "How the biometric data is stored and accessed is unclear, but the ID card procedure means the state possesses the data to build a biometric database of all citizens," the report said. The full report is downloadable from the think tank's website. Source: Yonhap News Agency