Thailand: Cyber Surveillance Vulnerable to Abuse
Originally written by Kavi Chongkittavorn of The Nation
Thai cyber-surveillance units know full-well their painstaking actions do not help curb or ameliorate any of their concerns. But they are all happy and proud of their work following orders. Better still, the annual budget for their activities—which began in earnest in 2001 with a few million baht start-up—has now reached an amazing half a billion baht yearly, with a special war room in the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology building.
Under the Yingluck government the snowball effect is getting worse, and the cybercrime units will be boosted with extra personnel and budget. After a new panel headed by mercurial Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung was set up to fight against anti-monarchy sentiment on the Internet—a panel that includes the procurement of a 400 million baht lawful interception (LI) system—the government now has the license to prey on all forms of voice communications, e-mails, SMS massages, and chat rooms. In a nutshell, nothing is out of reach for interception orders.
Thanks to the ridiculous ways the Thai bureaucrats think of Internet freedom and control of the flow of digital information, especially anti-monarchy content, this money will obviously be laid to waste and still worsen individual security and privacy. In the past, wire-tapping and telephone-tapping, which was supposed to be used to track down criminals and other illegal activities, were abused and used to investigate private matters. With the LI system, Chalerm will indeed become the most powerful man in Thailand as he literally will have access to all digital communications in the country. Unless something is done now with checks and balances to tightly regulate the use of LI, this system will definitely be abused and misused. In other democratic countries Internet interception is done under strict rules and tight auditing. In the case of Thailand, as Chalerm put it, it will be used to track down the origins of anti-monarchy messages. Internet interception is considered unconstitutional without a court warrant.
After the Computer Crime Act came into effect in 2007, Thailand’s freedom of expression has suffered greatly. Gone are days when the country had what was considered one of the region’s freest media. Efforts to censor digital data and web sites have increased meteorically since 2007. These days foreign-based media freedom indexes rank Thailand at the bottom end of the lists because of our many lese majeste cases and heavy online filtering. The total of shut-down websites and pages has reached several hundred thousand, which shows the system’s lack of efficacy. Truth be told, nearly 85 to 90 percent of blocked content comes from the same sources, via mirror sites or remailers. A better system of scrutiny and monitoring would drastically reduce the numbers of online blockades. It must also be noted that there are web operators aboard with undesirable content who have closed affiliations with quite a few leading personalities of the current government.
It is sad but true that court officials readily grant permissions to block content—as is required by law—without seriously checking the content of the targeted sites. This has led to increased workloads and additional shut-downs of web pages, making the operation more expensive and impractical as more users go online. With such a huge number of blocked sites, the country’s Internet freedom will be further downgraded, which could have far-reaching repercussions on learning and social progress, as well as the growth of Thailand’s information society.
At the moment, due to the Computer Crime Act, many leading government agencies, such as the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Interior have set up cyber police units. They are doing their own things without a common approach or strategy. On the other hand, with mobile technology and social media networking, wireless users have reached almost half of the 66-million population.
The government does not have sufficient bureaucratic arrangements to cope with the growing number of users. Therefore, ways must be found to enforce good governance, transparency, and accountability for both users and enforcers. In the case of the Internet, the best way is through a self-regulatory framework. Obviously, whenever this concept is mentioned in meetings among the authorities concerned, there are peals of laughter from them. Simply put, these people have a fixed mindset; they do not think the Thai online communities, comprising Internet hosts and service providers, software and hardware companies, and users, would be able to come together and agree among themselves on a code of ethics and best practices. They feel the only way to go is through them and their conservative methods.
Indeed, Thailand should learn from the good practices of our foreign friends. One of them is Australia’s self-regulation of the Internet, which is an advanced and effective way to provide sanctions against those who are guilty of malfeasances. There are many categories of Thai online users, from the naïve to the most sophisticated groups of young people and the highly educated Net-savvy population. Whenever the latter groups encounter problems or perceived misconducts, they either alert each other or take their own action, such as deleting the undesirable messages. Their social networks are very active and provide much needed information for netizens – the recent flood is a case in point—contrary to the official version that these social networks perpetuate controversial content (i.e. anti-royal spins et al). Of course, the case of a 62-year-old man who received a 20-year sentence for four text messages sent from his mobile phone to a government official was a rare and isolated case.
In the past years, the Thai Journalist Association and its affiliated online organizations have conducted various workshops to increase the capacity and knowledge of computer crime law and responsibility for local users. Indeed, authorities who are dealing with Internet surveillance also need similar training in all areas, especially those related to sociological aspects. Most of them are thinking in terms of technical outcome rather than with a holistic approach that would produce better results. Heavy punitive measures are not the key. Currently, the overall capacity of officials who monitor the Internet is extremely low; they lack the kind of skills and knowledge needed to understand the impact that filtering and other forms of censorship have on the overall learning capacity of the Thai people.