Naenara Browser is the DPRK’s version of Firefox that comes built into Red Star OS, the official operating system of North Korea. I recently got my hands on Naenara Browser version 3.5. My first impression in playing with it is that this is one ancient version of Firefox. Like maybe more than a half dozen major revisions out of date? It’s hard to tell for sure in cursory checking but the menus remind me of something I used to use 5+ years ago. That’s not too surprising; it’s tough to have a browser and update it all the time, especially with such a small team devoted to the project, as I’m sure they have a lot of other things going on.
When I first saw an image of the browser I was awe-struck to see that it made a request to an adddress (http://10.76.1.11/) upon first run. That may not mean much to someone who doesn’t deal with the Internet much, but it’s a big deal if you want to know how North Korea’s Internet works.
If you want to send a request to a web address across the country, you need to have a hostname or an IP address. Hostnames convert to IP addresses through something called DNS. So if I want to contact www.whitehatsec.com DNS will tell me to go to 22.214.171.124. But there are certain addresses, like those that start in “10.”, “192.168.” and a few others that are reserved and meant only for internal networks – not designed to be routable on the Internet. This is sometimes a security mechanism to allow local machines to talk to one another when you don’t want them to traverse the Internet to do so.
Here’s where things start to go off the rails: what this means is that all of the DPRK’s national network is non-routable IP space. You heard me; they’re treating their entire country like some small to medium business might treat their corporate office. The entire country of North Korea is sitting on one class A network (16,777,216 addresses). I was always under the impression they were just pretending that they owned large blocks of public IP space from a networking perspective, blocking everything and selectively turning on outbound traffic via access control lists. Apparently not!
But it doesn’t stop there! No! No sirrreee… I started digging through their configuration settings and here are some gems:
- They use the same tracking system Google uses to create unique keys, except they built their own. That means the microtime of installation is sent to the mothership every single time someone pulls down the anti-phishing and anti-malware lists (from 10.76.1.11) in the browser. This microtime is easily enough information to decloak people, which is presumably the same reason Google built it into the browser.
- All crash reports are sent to the mothership (10.76.1.11). So every time the browser fails for some reason they get information about it. Useful for debugging and also for finding exploits in Firefox, without necessarily giving that information back to Mozilla – a U.S. company.
- All news feeds go back to the mothership in a specially crafted URL: http://10.76.1.11/naenarabrowser/rss/?url=%s At first it was unclear if that actually does anything or not, since we can’t see the IP address, but it looks like it probably does act as a feed aggregator.
- Strangely, the browser adds “.com” instead of “.com.kp” as a suffix when the browser can’t find something. It’s odd because this means in some cases this might accidentally be contacting external hosts when someone typos something in the country. A bad design choice, but perhaps meant for usability since most things live on .com.
- There are quite a few references to “.php” on the mothership website. I would be unsurprised if most things on it were written in PHP.
- Then I spotted this little number: http://10.76.1.11/naenarabrowser/%LOCALE%.www.mozilla.com/%LOCALE%/firefox/geolocation/ This is the warning that pops up when users turn on geolocation. But here’s the really crazy part: if you remove the DPRK specific URL part and just leave it as %LOCALE%.www.mozilla.com/%LOCALE%/firefox/geolocation/ and substitute %LOCALE% with “ko” you end up on Mozilla’s site translated into Korean. Could the mothership be acting as a proxy? Is that how people are actually visiting the Internet – through a big proxy server? Can that really be true? It kind of makes sense to do it that way if you want to allow specific URLs through but not others on the same domain. Hm!
- More of the same. This time the safe browsing API that Google supports to find phishing/malware stuff — http://10.76.1.11/naenarabrowser/safebrowsing.clients.google.com/safebrowsing/diagnositc?client=%NAME%&hl=%LOCALE%&site= — if you remove the preceding part of the URL and fill in the variables it’s a real site. And there are a bunch more like this.
- Apparently they allow some forms of extensions, plugins and themes, though it’s not clear if this is the whole list or their own special brand of allowed add ons: http://10.76.1.11/naenarabrowser/%LOCALE%/%VERSION%/extensions/ http://10.76.1.11/naenarabrowser/%LOCALE%/%VERSION%/plugins/ http://10.76.1.11/naenarabrowser/%LOCALE%/%VERSION%/themes/
- Apparently all of the mail from the country goes through the single mothership URL. Very strange to build it this way, and obviously vulnerable to man in the middle attacks, sniffing and so on, but I guess no one in DPRK has any secrets, or at least not over email: http://10.76.1.11/naenarabrowser/mail/?To=%s I found a reference to “evolution” with regards to mail, which means there is a good chance North Korea is using the Evolution project for their country.
- Same thing with calendaring? So many sensitive things end up in calendars, like passwords, excel spreadsheets, etc… it’s still very odd that they haven’t bothered using HTTPS internally: http://10.76.1.11/naenarabrowser/webcal/?refer=ff&url=%s
- This one blew my mind. Either it’s a mistake or a bizarre quirk of the way DPRK’s network works but the wifi URL for GEO still points to https://www.google.com/loc/json – not only is there no way for this to work since Google hasn’t gone through the country with their wifi cars, and it’s on the public Internet without going through their proxy of doom, but also it’s over HTTPS, meaning that if it were able to be contacted, the DPRK might have a hard time seeing what is being sent. Would they allow outbound HTTPS? More questions than answers it seems.
- In looking around at the certificates that they support, I was not surprised to find that they accepted no other certificates as valid – only their own. That means it would be trivial to man in the middle any outbound HTTPS connection, so even if they do allow outbound access to Google’s JSON location API it wouldn’t help, because the connection and contents can be monitored by them. Likewise, no other governments can man in the middle any connections that the North Koreans have (I’m saying that with a bit of tongue in cheek, because of course they can according to Wikileaks docs, but this probably makes the DPRK feel better — and more importantly they probably don’t know how to do it in the same way as the NSA does, so they have to rely on draconian Internet breaking concepts like this).
- The browser automatically updates, without letting the browser disable that function. That’s actually a good security measure, but given how old this browser is, I doubt they use it often, and therefore it’s probably not designed to protect the user, but rather allow the government to quickly install malware should they feel the need. Wonderful.
- Snort intrusion detection system is installed by default. It’s either used as an actual security mechanism as it was designed or it could be re-purposed as a way to constantly snoop on people’s computers to see what they are doing when they use the Internet. Even if it didn’t phone home necessarily, the DPRK soldier who broke down your door could fairly easily do forensics and see everything you had done without relying on any IP correlation at the mothership. So using your neighbor’s wifi isn’t a safe alternative for a political dissident using Red Star OS.
My ability to read North Korean is non-existent, so I had to muddle my way through this quite a bit, but I think we have some very good clues as to how this browser and more importantly how North Korea’s Internet works, or doesn’t work as it might be.
It is odd that they can do all of this off of one IP address. Perhaps they have some load balancing but ultimately running anything off of one IP address for a whole country is bad for many reasons. DNS is far more resilient, but it also makes things slower, in a country with Internet connectivity that is probably already pretty slow. If I were to guess, the DPRK probably uses a proxy and splits off core functions by URL to various clusters of machines. A single set of F5s could easily handle this job for the entire country. It would be slow, but it doesn’t seem the country cares much about the comforts of fast Internet anyway.
Ultimately the most interesting takeaway for me personally was what lengths North Korea goes to to limit what their people get to do, see and contribute to — Censorship at a browser and network level embodied in the OS called Red Star 3.0. It’s quite a feat of engineering. Creepy and cool. Download the Red Star OS here.