Telecom surveillance orders just a part of growing digital authoritarianism in Myanmar

Alarming orders from Myanmar’s Posts and Telecommunications Department (PTD) back in June warned that senior executives of major telecommunications firms in the country would not be allowed to leave the country without the permission of the military junta. In pursuit of the junta’s goals of creating a digital surveillance state, telecom companies were told that they had until July 5 to implement technology on their systems that would allow government authorities to spy on calls, messages, and web traffic, as well as to track the whereabouts of users. 

While these recent initiatives by the military junta come as the country faces growing instability due to widespread public protests, a growing armed opposition, and economic upheaval, the broader strategy of digital authoritarianism predates the February 1 coup d’état. The implications of this strategy are far-reaching.

Before February 1, the Tatmadaw not-so-covertly obtained technology that allows them to conduct surveillance on their own citizens through purchases that were sold under the guise of modernizing the country’s law enforcement agencies. With the former National League for Democracy (NLD) government out of the way and largely detained, the military government now has access to surveillance drones, electronic devices that can crack iPhones, and sophisticated software that can hack into computer systems and extract their data. In other words, the same technology that was designed to help modernize Myanmar during its democratization period is now being used to crackdown on civilians as well as gain control over some domestic and foreign corporations based in the country.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the Myanmar military coup outside the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok on February 7, 2021. (Photo by Jack TAYLOR / AFP)

Technology from the Israeli company Cellebrite, is a prime example of the dangers of this capability in the hands of an oppressive state. Myanmar used Cellebrite technology to gather evidence which led to the jailing of two Pulitzer Prize winning Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating Myanmar’s draconian state secrecy laws. They were eventually freed after spending more than 500 days behind bars for reporting on alleged genocide against the minority Rohingya Muslim community. The technology obtained by Myanmar can unlock phones, which makes it easier for law enforcement to gain access to user files. The technology was used to breach the phones of the two Reuters journalists, which ultimately led to their conviction.

Foreign companies allowed these technologies to be sold into Myanmar—most of which have dual purposes—despite a near ban on technology exports to Myanmar after the brutal 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. As the New York Times explained, many Western companies had clauses in their corporate guidelines that barred their technology from being used as tools to abuse human rights.

Myanmar’s burgeoning surveillance state has come about because of authoritarian partners like China, who have been complicit in the Tatmadaw’s attempts to digitally seal its borders. For example, shortly after the February coup d’état, Chinareportedly began assisting the military government in establishing a cyber firewall, similar to the Great Firewall in mainland China, which restricts the internet activities of hundreds of millions of Chinese. There are more than 23.5 million internet users in Myanmar as of January 2021.

Days after the February 1 coup, junta planners drafted a cybersecurity bill—causing alarm among human rights defenders—and potentially giving authorities sweeping powers over the internet. Largely concocted as a result of the overwhelming opposition to the coup, the legislation would require that any internet service provider hand information over to authorities “under any existing law” as well as giving the state the power to intervene in cases that threaten national “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The law also threatens individuals charged with managing data with three years in prison and fines up to $7,500.

While domestic and international pressure convinced—at least temporarily—the junta to drop the pursuit of the law, it managed to transfer some of the key details to an amended version of its Electronic Transactions Law (ETL), which increases criminality in the management of personal data and threatens civic spaces. The ETL’s vague wording also has human rights and civil society groups worried. 

Social media has become a powerful tool for voicing dissent and has been a gateway to outside information in Myanmar—and for the most part, it has been uncensored until recently. Facebook has had a dominant presence in the country with more than 21 million users. Many citizens use popular social media applications, including TikTok and Instagram.

People give hold up three-finger salutes, after calls for protest against the military coup emerged on social media, in Yangon on February 4, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Before the coup, the number of internet users increased by 2.5 million between 2020 and 2021, however the number of social media users increased by 32 percent or more than 7 million between the same period. Days after the coup, Myanmar’s generals ordered Facebook blocked for the sake of “stability” and to curb the spread of “fake news and misinformation” that the military claimed could lead to unrest and rioting. They also ordered popular social media applications Twitter and Instagram blocked.

Also at issue is the number of mobile and internet providers under the control of the junta. The military controls two large mobile networks, Mytel and MPT. The cybersecurity law would be a vehicle for the junta to control all information to prevent “causing hate, disrupting the unity, stabilization and peace” of Myanmar.” Foreign telecom providers are aware of the cybersecurity bill and were pressured to comply.

Norwegian service provider Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo had not completely complied as of a week ago. Prior to the February coup, foreign technology investment had been booming, but recent actions have left many questioning their positions. Telenor recently announced that it sold its business Myanmar to Lebanese investment firm M1 for $105 million. Telenor back in December flagged the junta’s moves to intercept communications as harmful and were concerned that the junta would be able to “directly access each operator and ISP’s systems without case-by-case approval.”

The telecom crackdown, the move toward a draconian cybersecurity law, and the junta’s travel restrictions on industry executives have placed civilians under tremendous pressure. Activists, who were once cautious about junta-owned and operated mobile providers like Mytel, now have to think twice about foreign-owned providers. The quick sale to M1 has raised questions about Telenor’s human rights priorities, and it leaves civilians questioning their choices to trust foreign-owned providers.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 29, 2018 Myanmar military chief General Min Aung Hlaing inspects a major bridge near the capital Naypyidaw damaged by flood waters. – Myanmar junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing will join a special ASEAN summit next week, the Thai foreign ministry said April 17, 2021, his first official trip since masterminding a coup which deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo by Thet AUNG / AFP)

Crackdowns by Myanmar’s military rules also have to place considerable pressure on joint ventures such as MPT, which is a partnership with Japan’s Sumitomo and KDDI, which planned to invest as much as $2 billion over the course of a decade into Myanmar. However MPT, according to Frontier Myanmar, has been dramatically escalating surveillance of its users since the February 1 coup.

Creeping digital authoritarianism has been a part of the strategy of Myanmar’s generals from the beginning, from planned shutdowns of mobile internet access, the blockage of social media, and the use of regime propaganda to blunt criticism.  While it’s not uncommon in Southeast Asia for authoritarian governments to use technology and the law as weapons against netizens, in Myanmar citizens have yet to learn the limits their military government will go to silence public criticism. If actions taken online are to mirror what has transpired on the street, the generals have only just begun.

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