North Koreans are coming online(ish)

Despite what you might think, smartphone penetration globally is only around 37% of the population. Most western countries are already saturated, which is why technology giants like Google are focusing in on efforts to bring entire new countries online.

One of those countries that's obviously not on the list is North Korea, but the country is getting smartphones anyway -- with an incredible catch: they're manufactured by the government.

North Koreans don't have access to the internet, but they do have access to the curated, censored intranet which is also run by the government. As such, the country has decided it's time to bring mobile connectivity to people to access that on the go.

This incredible read from The Wall Street Journal (paywalled) looks at how North Korea is coming online, and it's faster than I'd expected: 1/6th of the population is connected, and the intranet even offers online shopping, domestic travel and... cooking help.

The story gets wild however, when you read on about the draconian monitoring these devices come with, out of the box: 

The Red Star system and the preloaded surveillance software allow Pyongyang to monitor behavior, said Florian Grunow, a German researcher who has analyzed North Korean gadgetry. Authorities can use the software to remotely delete files from a computer and can block users from sharing files, he said. 
A tool called TraceViewer that Mr. Grunow found on a North Korean tablet PC records app usage and intranet browsing history. The software takes random screenshots; users can see the screenshots on their devices, but can’t delete them

Honestly I have no idea how to react to this part except with 😬! The piece also details other tidbits: they're customized Android builds on mobile devices, and a special surveillance-equipped version of Ubuntu on desktop.

This entire thing is fascinating from so many facets: it's a peek into the level of surveillance an authoritarian government could exert with smartphones. The North Korean government has more insight into its citizens than ever before, and people are adopting the devices wholesale regardless because they're useful. 

What's curious is technology also likely gives smart citizens a way to peek outside the regime, presuming they can find cracks in the devices that let them circumvent controls. 

The piece is worth a read, particularly because it's insight into what happens if a country end-to-end reverse engineers the internet, devices and more. Wild! 

P.S - The WSJ paywall is annoying, and while I don't condone circumventing it on a regular basis... there is this... 

HomeKit's secure IOT platform hit by zero day exploit

Apple's IOT platform was advertised to be the most secure option for getting "smart" devices online, but hey, it was hacked too. 

An exploit uncovered by journalists yesterday allowed hackers to remote control smart devices such as smart door locks and garage door openers. 

The attack hasn't been detailed (yet) but Apple's "fix" for the exploit has been to disable remote HomeKit device access entirely for a week until a patch can be issued. 

I'm curious about the details, but mostly include this story to make two points, until we know more: 

  1. Everything can be hacked, and probably will at some point.
  2. Apple's software quality seems really bad right now, and it's difficult to understand the source of this.

In just the last month alone we've seen an iOS 11 build on millions of devices go into boot loops upon a particular date, a keyboard bug learn that a [?] should autocorrect normal letters, a vulnerability that gave anyone admin access to a Mac, an update that fixed that, then broke it again one update later and the same update entirely breaking file sharing.  

We discussed this at length on this community topic, and it's difficult to pinpoint what's going wrong. 

My theory is that Apple's release cycle is to blame: monolithic release cycles, with no way to update individual components, mean that the company's testing surface is too great to be effective anymore -- particularly with a yearly release cadence.

Apple is going through massive amounts of change in recent years, particularly as it goes further up market with devices like HomePod and iPhone X, and one has to wonder if the disbanding of the Mac team and internal re-organizing of how software is built under key executives is to blame. 

It's clear that something is very wrong here, especially considering the scale of these bugs. Apple said it plans to "audit" how its software is built following these issues, but it's like moving a mountain to solve it in the short term.

Anyway, HomeKit was hacked, and it's not good, but it's also important to keep it in perspective when one crappily-designed lightbulb could be hijacked at any time anyway.

Tab Dump

Nvidia pushes deeper into machine learning
When you hear the word "Nvidia" you probably think gamers but the company's work with graphics cards for machine learning means it has almost zero competition as the space continues to gain steam. To see this in action (along with the Bitcoin effect) just look at $NVDA which grew more than 1000% in two years. 

The company's new graphics card, Titan V, pushes further into this and focuses on machine learning¬†only.¬†It hopes to deliver the kind of power to researchers that you'd leverage AWS for, but in a single desktop machine. 😅

San Francisco is worried about delivery robots
Ah, San Francisco -- a place where the housing crisis is out of control, but the government has time to autonomous regulate delivery robots.

A $200,000 Bitcoin odyssey
Two quick notes: 1) holy shit, Bitcoin hit $17K yesterday and 2) this story about a person who bought a lot of Bitcoin years ago but couldn't remember the password is a wild goose chase around the world to break into his wallet.