Human communication

Myanmar coup one year on: Growing surveillance threatens lives

Citizens of Myanmar face strong chances to access online space as military junta cracks down on dissent

– Junta hacked into mobile devices, imposed internet shutdowns

– Citizens are finding ways to continue to communicate, to protest

– Proposed cybersecurity law will further compromise privacy

By Rina Chandran

Jan. 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A group of young men were recently detained at a security checkpoint in Yangon and asked to hand over their mobile phones. After being questioned about social media apps on their phones, one was fined for using a virtual private network (VPN).

A crackdown on VPNs, which anonymize a user’s internet protocol address and help bypass firewalls, is the latest attack on digital rights in Myanmar – alongside internet shutdowns and growing surveillance – since a military coup on February 1, 2021.

Authorities say the surveillance measures are part of a drive to improve governance and tackle crime.

Fearing being tracked, citizens turned off location settings on their phones and used encrypted messaging apps, VPNs and foreign SIM cards to communicate and stage protests, and document human rights abuses in the country. .

“Even before the coup, it was assumed there was surveillance – it has become much heavier and more overt since February 1,” said Debbie Stothard, founder of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, a group defense.

“But people are determined to keep the channels of communication open, and they are very resourceful in voicing their dissent and recording the abuse – even at the risk of their lives,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. in Bangkok.

Security forces have killed around 1,500 people and arrested thousands since Feb. 1, 2021, according to the nonprofit Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners.

The people of this Southeast Asian country had already lived under military control for nearly half a century until 2011.

In the decade of democratic transition that followed, Myanmar hosted several mobile networks and bought drones, facial recognition software and spyware from foreign companies that the junta uses to track civilians, groups say. defense of rights.

Now, a cybersecurity bill that is expected to come into force in the coming weeks aims to completely control electronic communications, data protection and VPN services in the country, which poses serious risks for citizens.

The bill will mean “the death of online civic space in Myanmar – limiting all of people’s remaining rights to freedom of expression, association, information, privacy and security”, said the digital rights group Access Now in a statement.

Myanmar authorities could not be reached for comment.

LIVES IN DANGER

Around the world, authoritarian governments are tightening their control over digital space, monitoring social media posts, demanding that critical posts be removed, and using spyware and internet shutdowns to track and silence dissent. .

In Myanmar, months before the coup, telecommunications and internet service providers were secretly ordered to install interception technology that would allow the military to eavesdrop on citizens’ communications, according to a Reuters survey.

With the junta in charge, activists fear that telecom companies will come under more pressure to deepen surveillance.

Two of Myanmar’s four telecommunications companies – MPT and Mytel – are backed by the state and the military respectively.

Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor announced in July that it would sell its Myanmar unit to Lebanese firm M1 Group, later saying it was to avoid EU sanctions after ‘continued pressure’ of the junta to activate surveillance technology.

Campaigners had called on Telenor to stop or delay the sale because it would involve handing over call data records of some 18 million users, putting ‘customer lives at risk’ in the event of potential abuse of their metadata by the Burmese military.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the junta was backing a deal for the M1 group to partner with a Burmese military-linked company to take over local operations from Telenor.

This is a clear signal that the military is “consolidating control over the telecommunications sector to expand surveillance and invade privacy”, said Access Now, which had asked Telenor to take steps to prevent any violation of data transfer rights. customer data to its buyer.

“They need to be clear about how the data is being processed, who the data is being passed to, and why they can’t take mitigating action right now to reduce some of the potential damage from any transaction that goes through,” Raman said. Jit Singh Chima, Policy Director for Asia at Access Now.

A Telenor spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“EXISTENTIAL THREAT”

The surveillance equipment the junta uses with impunity on the people of Myanmar was now available even before the coup, and underscores the dangers of adopting such technology, Chima said.

“No matter the intent or character of any political administration, once the surveillance architecture is in place, it can be used by any future regime or repressive actor to encroach on privacy and foster digital authoritarianism,” did he declare.

Meanwhile, mobile phone users in Myanmar also face higher costs for making calls and using mobile internet.

Over the past month, mobile data prices have risen by almost 50%, and call charges and SIM card activation fees have also risen sharply, according to Myanmar rights groups.

Additionally, the new cybersecurity law is a “clear and existential threat” to anyone who opposes the junta, said John Quinley, senior human rights specialist at Fortify Rights.

The junta “will use this Orwellian law to target critics and undermine people’s right to safety and privacy online,” said Quinley, whose organization has heard of several cases of civilians being arrested on the streets. by the security forces and whose mobile phones have been checked.

Restrictions on VPNs – with stiff penalties including fines and jail time for those who use them illegally – will have serious repercussions for the local population, said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, an activist in Myanmar.

“We use VPNs to access information about COVID-19, for education, daily transactions and social activities,” she said.

“When we are punished for using VPNs, it’s like killing ourselves.”

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news .trust.org)

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