Silicon Valley Takes on North Korea

Interesting. I’d bet this group will make more progress than any government effort.
Silicon Valley’s ambitions range far and wide, from taking on hotels and taxi operators to connecting toothbrushes to the Internet.

Now, it’s starting to turn its focus to North Korea.

Over the weekend, about 100 hackers, coders and engineers gathered in San Francisco to brainstorm ways to pierce the information divide that separates North Korea from the rest of the world.

The event, dubbed “Hack North Korea” by organizers at the Human Rights Foundation, is part of a broader effort to channel the wealth, ambition and know-how of Silicon Valley to address difficult real-world problems — and few topics are knottier than North Korea.

The Human Rights Foundation hackathon follows a balloon launch earlier this year that brought democracy leaflets, South Korean soap operas on DVD and USB drives loaded with the Korean Wikipedia over the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.

During the two-day “Hack North Korea” event, the participants were briefed by defectors on the situation in the country. They then pitched ideas for ways to use technology to get information into the country, and broke into groups to turn those ideas into rough prototypes.

“These are people who don’t usually think about human rights or North Korea, and I think they learned a lot,” said Alex Gladstein, director of institutional affairs for the Human Rights Foundation. The session wrapped up on Sunday like most Silicon Valley hackathons, with four-minute presentations before a panel of six judges — three judges from the West, three from North Korea.

The winning team, which featured a pair of teenage siblings who flew in from Virginia for the event, presented a prototype of a system that could allow North Koreans to get real-time information more easily inside the country, Mr. Gladstein said.

The team proposed using micro-radio devices the size of credit cards, which they said could pick up signals from the South and which could be delivered into the country by smuggling or balloon drop.

Alongside this, the team would target South Korean satellite television broadcasts aimed at China, which pass over the North. Using what they described as “easily concealable” satellite receivers, North Koreans would be able to directly plug their televisions into the receivers.

For their efforts, the winning team won a trip to South Korea to meet with defectors and try and turn their idea into a reality. In recent years, groups like the Human Rights Foundation have been courting Silicon Valley as a source of funds and ideas. Google founder Sergey Brin and his wife Anne Wojcicki, as well as Peter Thiel, are major donors to the non-profit.

The foundation’s current North Korea campaign is being funded by Alexander Lloyd, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Mr. Lloyd has said he first got interested in the country after hearing defector Hyeonseo Lee tell the story of her escape from North Korea in a widely-viewed TED talk last year.

Of course, North Korea is no stranger to cyber warfare. It has its own legions of computer-savvy hackers, who have been fingered in a number of attacks on the South, though the North has denied involvement.

In June, a Seoul-based defector group said that Pyongyang had issued an order signed by the country’s leader Kim Jong Un to insulate the country from the South’s cyberattacks.

Silicon Valley Takes on North Korea – Digits – WSJ.


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