North Korea's ruling class has in recent months abandoned Western social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Alphabet's Google and dramatically increased its use of tools that cloak internet activity, according to cyber security research published on Wednesday.
The reclusive country's small percentage of internet-connected leaders is preferring to use Chinese services such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, U.S.-based cyber intelligence firm Recorded Future said in a report.
Between December 2017 and March 15 this year, North Korea's elite increased by 1,200 percent its use of services such as virtual private networks and the Tor anonymity used to obfuscate internet activity, the firm said. Recorded Future said it analyzed internet protocol ranges associated with North Korea and other open-source information in its research.
Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at Record Future and author of the report, said that Pyongyang's effort to mask internet activity showed it was not being fully transparent before a planned meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearization.
Trump on Tuesday called Kim "very honorable" and praised him for being "very open," but he tempered expectations for any quick denuclearization deal by saying "it may be we're all wasting a lot of time."
Statements describing the country as being more open were "in contrast with what we have observed in North Korea's online behavior," said Moriuchi, a former senior U.S. intelligence official who studied Asia-based cyber threats. "It is a difference of data vs. diplomacy, or action against words."
Internet access is strictly limited in North Korea. It is not known how many people there have direct access to the global internet, but estimates generally place the figure at a small fraction of one percent of the population of about 25 million.
Moriuchi said the change in online behavior may be because there is more foreign research and attention on how North Koreans use the internet. It may also be the result of stricter enforcement of an official ban against Western social media services and a desire to increase online security among North Korean's senior leadership, Moriuchi said.
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