SAN FRANCISCO – An idea to distribute miniaturized satellite dishes capable of receiving South Korean TV broadcasts won the world’s first North Korea “hackathon” event on Sunday.
The event – judged by a mixture of defectors, human rights activists, and technology experts – saw eight teams present technology-focused proposals to disrupt Pyongyang’s monopoly on the control of information.
Ranging from ideas that involved the use of catapults to launch media across borders – to ideas focused on emerging technologies such as mesh-networking and blast data transmission, the “hackathon” was ultimately won by the youngest team to participate in the event.
The winners, a three person Korean-American team who requested to remain anonymous, won by proposing the mass distribution of compact “Skylife” satellite receivers in North Korea as an effective way of reducing Pyongyang’s iron-grip on information.
Skylife, which is a subscription TV service that comprises around 100 channels, broadcasts on Koreasat, a satellite orbiting above the Korean peninsula.
With the latest receivers far smaller than the large, wall-mounted dishes traditionally required to watch satellite TV, the team said North Korean viewers could use the proposed mini-receivers to watch clear and realtime South Korean broadcasts with the minimal of risk.
“Skylife broadcast their signal all the way from South Korea to China, putting North Korea directly in the center of their coverage,” one of the presenters explained. “So if we give [the North Koreans] just the satellite receiver, they can tune into all the channels,” he added.
Despite the receiver technology still being in development, the winners estimated that the miniaturized receivers would cost between $120 to $170 upon release, depending on type.
One receiver system, roughly the size of a VHS tape, could be available “within the next couple of months” and cost around $120 per unit, the presenter said. The other, which uses new flat-dish technology and is about the same size as a paper plate, would cost around $175 per unit.
The presenters said that both systems would likely be popular with “top officials and elites,” given their capability to tune into realtime South Korean TV entertainment and news shows.
But despite the simplicity and apparent effectiveness of the idea, Martyn Williams, author of the NK Tech website, said that problems remained to be solved.
“To receive a signal, the antenna will need to have line-of-sight to a satellite in the southern sky. It would be possible to put the dish indoors, reducing the chance of detection, but only is the windows face south and, ideally, can be opened,” he explained.
“If that’s not possible, it would have to be placed outdoors, substantially increasing the chances of detection,” he continued.
Another problem related to the point that Skylife is a commercial service, explained Williams. “Someone would have to pay for monthly subscriptions somewhere, unless Skylife was persuaded to offer them from free.”
And North Korea might be able to block the signal on a neighborhood level with some ease, but on a state level only with the risk of interfering signal in South Korea.
“Iran has blocked satellite TV broadcasts, including the BBC and VOA programming,” Williams said.
Park Yeon Mi, a North Korean defector known for South Korean TV appearances, was one of the event judges.
FROM SIMPLE TO COMPLEX
Other proposals at the Hackathon ranged from the simple to the complex.
One team suggested the use of mass-produced slingshots to fire USB keys up to 400m across the border.
The concept, which would be “useful year around,” was described by the team as a form of “low tech nirvana” that had the benefit for those using it of being “immediately disposable”.
Another team proposed the use of a “Wickr or Snapchat like-App” that could be adapted for North Korean cellphones, allowing users to communicate with each other using messages that delete within seconds of display.
The target would be “middle class users with cellphones,” the team said, with distribution following a Facebook-like style organic growth.
North Korea Tech blogger Martyn Williams proposed a radio based system that could facilitate anonymous text-based domestic data communication into and out of North Korea. Unlike many of the other proposals, it was one of the few that appeared to be capable of facilitating anything close to a domestic news service for North Korean users.
And another team offered an elaborate peer-to-peer communications system based on miniature “Raspberry Pie” computers, demonstrating to judges the rapid speed even high quality video could be shared among a user network.
The winning team will receive two round-trip tickets to Seoul to meet defector groups and further discuss their idea, it was revealed at the end of the event.
Award presenter Thor Halvorssen, President of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), added that his organization would also “work as hard as we can to finance [the satellite idea],” inviting Silicon Valley investors impressed with the concept to do their part to help cover purchase and distribution costs.
Halvorssen added that it had been “very hard to make the decision,” describing “some of the ideas as very complementary”.
The North Korea hackathon may be repeated in future, HRF President Halvorssen also said.
The aim of the hackathon, the event literature said, was to “spark better ideas for getting information into the world’s most closed and isolated society”.
The hackathon was part of HRF’s‘Disrupt North Korea’ project, which looks for ”ways to support technologies and initiatives that at disrupting the North Korean regime’s informations monopoly.”
It was funded in part by Alexander Lloyd, a Bay Area fund manager who become interested in North Korea after attending a TED talk by female defector Hyeonseo Lee.
Activists have to date struggled with developing mass communication techniques to directly share news and information with North Korean citizens.
Balloon launches, USB keys, DVDs and radio broadcasts form the main vectors for activists interested in sending information into the country that may undermine the leadership.
Pictures: NK News
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