ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Thailand’s Creeping Digital Authoritarianism

Since the military coup of 2014, Thailand has developed one of the most sophisticated systems of digital surveillance in Southeast Asia.

By Gerard McDermott for
Thailand’s Creeping Digital Authoritarianism

Passengers ride on the BTS Skytrain in the Thai capital Bangkok.

Credit: Flickr/Nopphan Bunnag

January saw a Thai court hand down a record-breaking 43 and a half- year sentence to a Thai woman convicted of breaking the country’s infamous lese majeste law. The court based the conviction on audio clips that the woman had posted on Facebook and YouTube. The sentencing has, once again, drawn attention to the country’s lese majeste law. But it has also provoked much speculation concerning the state’s ability to monitor Thai netizens, an ability that has become greatly enhanced in recent years.

Since the military coup of May 2014, there have been numerous developments concerning the Thai state’s ability to monitor, influence, and control the population, both online and in the physical realm. As Pinkaew Laungaramsri and Wolfram Schaffar have discussed, Thai cyberspace has become militarized and deeply politicized since the coup. Since then, according to Pinkaew, “the expansion of mass surveillance and the emphasis on cyber surveillance has put in place a new form of digital panopticon that differs both in scope and scale from that of the Cold War mission.” Since she made this observation in 2016, there have been numerous developments and disclosures concerning the Thai military’s ability to collect information in an in-depth and comprehensive way, particularly in the restive southern Muslim-majority provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Additional to widespread surveillance, there has been, according to Mark Cogan, a policy of intentional widespread disinformation carried out by the Thai government since the coup.

The Computer Crimes Act of 2007 can be seen as the starting point for the Thai security services’ attempts to control or smother online dissent. Yet it was the Thai military’s formation in early 2015 of a new “cyber warfare” unit that signaled the junta’s intention to move in the direction of digital authoritarianism, in a similar manner to its newfound partner, China. The army cyber center has its equivalent in the Royal Thai Police force, in the form of the Orwellian-titled Technology Crime Suppression Division. A year later, in September 2016, the Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established, replacing the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology that was established in 2002.

The establishment of the “cyber warfare” unit was assisted by Italian online surveillance firm Hacking Team and the Israeli software company Nice Systems. A WikiLeaks report revealed that the “cyber warfare” unit had the ability to “covertly collect emails, text messages, and phone call histories; perform keystroke logging; uncover search history data and take screenshots; record audio from phone calls; use phones to collect noise and conversations by remotely switching on the telephone; activate the telephone’s camera; and hijack telephone GPS systems. The Remote Control Software (RCS) was capable of utilizing a number of known and “Zero-Day” (unknown to anti-virus companies and previously unused) hacking exploits against software including Adobe Flash.” Additionally in 2015, WikiLeaks published information concerning the Thai military’s employment of Hacking Team for an additional project in the restive southern border provinces. The firm went to Pattani province to install a new RCS named Galileo in the summer of 2015, according to emails leaked by WikiLeaks.

A year later, the Thai Hacktivist group Citizens Against Single Gateway accused the Thai military in December 2016 of buying decryption technology for monitoring messaging apps and social network communications. 2016 also saw the introduction of the new computer crime bill, building on the previous 2007 Computer Crimes Act. A report from 2017 claimed that during 2016 and 2017, hackers working for the Thai government had used DNS hijacking and HTTP transparent proxies to block media websites, WikiLeaks, and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention.

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In 2018, the ministry announced its plan to set up a cybersecurity agency and hacker training center “to serve Thailand’s digital economy.” However, the real purpose of the center was to counter online discussion that may be seen as critical of the government, monarchy, or military, or may be seen to break computer crimes laws.

In 2019, Puttipong Punnagun, Thailand’s minister of digital economy and society, opened an “anti-fake news center” in Bangkok. The center maintains 40 full-time staff to monitor online discussions. The purpose of these online monitors is to forward discussion that may contravene the Computer Crimes Act to the police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division. Other officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry are also able to request computer data from service providers without a warrant. However, when provided with a warrant, the ministry is able to acquire significantly more data. Additionally, under new regulations introduced by the ministry, cafes and bars are required to keep a history of browsing data of their patrons for 90 days. Overall, after nearly five years of creeping digital authoritarianism, Thailand’s ranking for privacy protection was listed as one of the lowest in the world by a Comparitech survey published at the end of 2019.

Another element of Thailand’s developing digital authoritarianism has been the government’s constant wrangling and bickering with tech giants over removing content from their services, leading to Facebook and Twitter removing accounts run by the Thai military in late 2020. Since at least 2016, the Thai military has asked Facebook, YouTube, and other websites to remove materials that were seen as critical of the monarchy or government. In 2017, Facebook and YouTube complied with Thai government demands to take down 1,800 pages deemed illegal under Thai law after receiving a warning from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission.

The issue of social-media content reemerged in 2020 when Royalist Marketplace, a Facebook group criticizing the monarchy and run by the Japan-based Thai dissident Pavin Chachavalpongpun was shut down in late August, only to be restarted the next day. The new group attracted more than 300,000 followers in under six hours. Once again, the government pledged to remove more offensive content from the Thai webspace in the future. In September, the government launched legal action against Facebook and Twitter after both services ignored a fifteen-day court order to remove content described by the Thai government as “offensive.” Google complied with the government’s demands and avoided legal action. In October, the dispute between the Thai government and the tech giants developed further as both Facebook and Twitter removed numerous accounts run by the Thai military for propaganda purposes. Also in October, Stanford University published an embarrassing report on the Thai military’s online campaign, which highlighted the failure of the Thai military’s online campaign against dissent.

In October 2020, the Thai government announced that it had established a new organization to investigate computer-related crimes. The institution would have branches in every region of Thailand (Chon Buri, Khon Kaen, Chiang Mai, and Surat Thani). It was also announced that the Technology Crime Suppression Division would still handle the majority of cases related to internet-related crimes.

In the Malay-Muslim-majority provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, the Thai state’s system of surveillance has become even more finely-tuned than that which operates in the rest of the country. It was before the coup, in 2012, that Thai security forces began to collect DNA samples at crime scenes and that a DNA databank began to be developed for the southern provinces. A forensics center was established in 2013 in Yala for investigating the aftermath of insurgent attacks. Since then, members of the security forces have collected DNA samples at checkpoints and also during raids at houses and schools. In April 2019, the Thai military started to collect DNA samples during its annual military conscription meetings.

In 2020, the security forces began registering phone numbers in southern Thailand using a facial recognition system. Phones have been used in the past for setting off bombs. The registration deadline was April 30, after which people that had failed to register their phones with the authorities saw them shut off from the system. Phone numbers had been registered since the early years of the conflict, but the use of facial recognition software was a significant new development that would lead to controversy later in 2020.

In early 2020, deputy-Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan announced that the 8,200 security cameras operated by the state in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and could be run with artificial intelligence (AI) sometime in the future, a development that would be similar to the system operational in China. In October, a U.N. report accused the Thai military of spying on the local population using an AI-enabled CCTV system, collecting biometric data, and intensive and widespread police surveillance that includes taking photos of people at checkpoints. In November 2020, the Thai military denied using AI within their CCTV system, describing such a system as “impractical.”

Overall, it remains to be seen how far Thailand develops into a surveillance state along the lines of China. As outlined above, however, a culture of digital authoritarianism has developed in the Kingdom, and shows no sign of abating. Taking into account the timing of the blossoming relationship between China and Thailand and the Thai military’s recently developed systems for surveillance, it is possible that the Thai military may be receiving aid in the form of assistance from China concerning surveillance technology and spying techniques.

Taking into account the developments outlined in this article, it can be seen that Thailand has experienced an incremental evolution into a sophisticated surveillance state since 2014 and that overall these developments bode ill for pro-democracy or pro-reform activists in the kingdom.

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Digital authoritarianism is not a phenomenon that is unique to Thailand and the possibility of Thailand’s authoritarian neighbors following the Chinese and Thai examples would not be surprising, especially considering the recent history of cooperation between Thailand and other illiberal regimes in the region.

Gerard McDermott is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. He has previously published in The Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, Peace Research, and Peace Review. He is originally from the Republic of Ireland.