Guest contribution by Adam John
The Junta uses mass surveillance over the internet in Thailand to crush public dissent. The military not only plans to extend its surveillance programs but is also moving towards legalizing its abuse of the internet under Thai law.
Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 confirmed our worst fears that everything we do over the Internet and on the phone is collected and recorded by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US with major support from the UK and the other ‘Five Eyes’ countries; Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Many governments around the world have introduced or are planning to introduce their own national mass surveillance programs and Thailand is no exception.
What is particularly concerning for Thailand with mass surveillance at the disposal of the military junta is that the Internet provides the only real forum for freedom of expression within Thailand because of the lèse-majesté Act which is abused to effectively shut down any criticism of the military’s control over the country. Online freedom of expression in Thailand took a major blow in 2007 with the introduction of the Computer Crimes Act which applied the lèse-majesté Act to the Internet. Under the Yingluck administration in 2011 the Cyber Security Operation Centre (CSOC) was created to monitor political dissent on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
A recent report released by Reporters without Borders (RWB) not only raises concerns over the government’s current abuse of the web, it also details a much more worrying development – the acquisition of mass surveillance tools and changes made in Thai law to make it easier for the government to spy on its citizens over the Internet. http://fr.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_thailande_en.pdf
The RWB report states that since the military coup last year “Laws have reinforced online censorship and the junta is developing Internet surveillance tools that target bloggers, human rights defenders and students who voice opposition to the loss in fundamental freedoms.”
The report calls the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) a “thought police” which is pursuing an “aggressive surveillance policy”. DSI’s duties involve spying in private chatrooms on the social messaging service LINE as well as spying on Facebook users and reporting “illegal” activity such as criticizing the monarchy or the junta. DSI even goes as far as creating fake Facebook accounts and targets individuals to incite them to criticize the monarch or military in order to get them arrested. In Orwellian fashion, the DSI reports all of its activities to the ‘Justice Ministry’.
Once suspects have been detained, they are forced to give up the usernames and passwords of their social media accounts to the police. One famous case was the musician and blogger Patchara Kerdsiri who was forced to hand over his Facebook account details and mobile phone to the military because he revealed that while General Prayut was leading the military coup in 2014, his wife was having fun at a party.
According to the RWB report, the Junta plans to leverage its mass surveillance capacity by ordering Internet Service Providers to “install surveillance equipment, deploy bogus SSLs (protocols that are supposed to guarantee the security of online communications) and install spyware on the computers of their clients.” The junta has also given the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) the go ahead to implement a single Internet gateway by the end of 2015. Restricting Internet usage in Thailand to a single gateway operator rather than the ten operators which Thailand currently has would mean that it will make it easier for the authorities to conduct its mass surveillance activities.
The Bangkok Post claimed that leaked emails posted on Wikileaks show that the Thai authorities are already working very closely with the telecommunications companies in the private sector. Netsurplus and Samart Comtech are working with the government to acquire Hacking Team software which is a Milan-based Information Technology company that sells surveillance capabilities to governments. Such software would allow the Thai authorities to intercept users’ messages, contact information and even remotely activate a person’s mobile phone microphone and camera. The junta would have eyes and ears everywhere.
The second part of the Junta’s strategy is to legalize their current and future mass surveillance activities. A proposed Cybersecurity Law was announced in January 2015 which has been dubbed the ‘Cyber-Martial Law’. If this law is passed it would effectively legalize mass surveillance and a National Committee for Cyber Security would be created and would have the jurisdiction to prevent online publications. “Data interception and website blocking would be possible without referring to a judge” and “the police units responsible for online surveillance would have a completely free hand” argues RWB.
Online privacy groups have tried to fight back including Thai Netizens who responded to the announcement of the single internet gateway by bringing down government websites but their success was short lived because of the imminent threat of receiving jail time for these activities. The international human rights group Access which advocates digital rights has provided internet users in Thailand with advice on how to communicate freely on the internet without fear. https://www.accessnow.org/blog/2014/06/17/flying-the-coup-circumventing-censorship-in-thailand
It includes advice on using encryption, safe search engines to use and internet browsers such as TOR which allows users to access blocked sites without being tracked by the authorities.