A group of young men were recently stopped 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).
The crackdown on VPNs, which anonymise 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 curb crime.
Fearful of being tracked, citizens have turned off the location setting on their phones, and used encrypted messaging apps, VPNs and foreign SIM cards to communicate and organise protests, and document human rights abuses in the country.
“Even before the coup, there was an assumption that there was surveillance – it has just gotten much more heavy-handed and overt since February 1,” said Debbie Stothard, founder of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, an advocacy group.
“But people are determined to keep communication channels open, and they are being very resourceful in expressing dissent and recording abuses – even at great risk to themselves,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Bangkok.
Security forces have killed about 1,500 people and arrested thousands since February 1, 2021, according to the non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
People in the Southeast Asian nation had already lived under military control for nearly half a century until 2011.
During the decade of democratic transition that followed, Myanmar welcomed multiple mobile networks, and purchased drones, facial recognition software and spyware from foreign firms that the junta is using to track civilians, rights groups say.
Now, a draft cybersecurity law that is expected to take effect in the coming weeks, is aimed at complete control of electronic communications, data protection and VPN services in the country, posing grave risks to citizens.
The bill will mean “the death of online civic space in Myanmar – throttling any remaining rights of the people to freedom of expression, association, information, privacy, and security,” digital rights group Access Now said in a statement.
Myanmar authorities could not be reached for comment.
Lives at risk
Across the world, authoritarian governments are tightening their control of the digital space, monitoring social media posts, demanding that critical posts be taken down, and using spyware and internet shutdowns to track and silence dissenters.
In Myanmar, telecom and internet service providers had been secretly ordered months before the coup to install intercept technology that would allow the army to eavesdrop on the communications of citizens, a Reuters investigation found.
With the junta in command, activists are concerned that telecom firms will come under more pressure to deepen surveillance.
Two of the four telecom firms in Myanmar – MPT and Mytel – are backed by the state and the military, respectively.
Norwegian telco Telenor announced in July it would sell its Myanmar unit to Lebanese firm M1 Group, later clarifying that this was to avoid European Union sanctions after “continued pressure” from the junta to activate surveillance technology.
Activists had called on Telenor to halt or delay the sale, as it would entail handover of call data records of some 18 million users, putting “customers’ lives at risk” from potential abuse of their meta-data by the Myanmar military.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the junta is backing a deal for M1 Group to partner with a Myanmar firm linked to the military to take over Telenor’s local business.
It clearly indicates that the military is “consolidating control over the telecom sector to expand surveillance and invade privacy,” said Access Now, which had asked Telenor to take steps to prevent any rights abuses from the transfer of customer data to its buyer.
“They need to be clear on how the data is being handled, who the data is being handed over to, and why they can’t take mitigative steps right now to reduce some of the potential harms of any transaction that goes through,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at Access Now.
A spokesperson for Telenor did not respond to a request for comment.
The surveillance equipment that the junta is using with impunity on Myanmar’s population now was available even before the coup, and underlines the dangers of adopting such technology, said Chima.
“No matter the intent or character of any political administration, once surveillance architecture is put in place, it can be used by any future regime or repressive actor to intrude on privacy and further digital authoritarianism,” he said.
Meanwhile, mobile phone users in Myanmar are also contending with higher costs to make calls and use mobile internet.
In the last month, mobile data prices have increased by almost 50%, and call charges and SIM card activation fees have also risen sharply, according to Myanmar rights groups.
In addition, the new cybersecurity law is a “clear and existential threat” to anyone who opposes the junta, said John Quinley, a senior human rights specialist at Fortify Rights.
The junta will “use this Orwellian law to target critics and undermine people’s right to security and privacy online,” said Quinley, whose organisation has heard of several cases of civilians being stopped on the street by security forces and having their mobile phones checked.
The restrictions on VPNs – with strict penalties including fines and jail terms for those found to be using them illegally – will have severe impacts on 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 us.”
(Thomson Reuters Foundation)