Thailand: Fears grow as online surveillance leads to alarming spike in arrests
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Thailand: Fears grow as online surveillance leads to alarming spike in arrests

PRIVACY is what provides the public the ability to freely communicate without harm, judgment, or repercussions for novel or critical thoughts.

It is what binds creativity and ideas together in a free and safe space to debate. With privacy, citizens can share and criticize ideas that might deeply need criticism. The most vital and valuable element to privacy is that it assures our right to freedom of expression and opinion.

Without the freedom of privacy, online, or at home, the public sphere become susceptible to an alarming array of violations—violations that could potentially lead to legal punishment and even detention without just cause.

Over the past two years, prosecutions under Thailand’s Computer Crime Act (CCA) have risen to severe and troubling numbers. As the arrests build, it has become obvious that government agencies are using the CCA to threaten and block “dissenting” voices under the vague law.

Human rights group Fortify Rights obtained information indicating that there have been 399 convictions in 2016 to date under the CCA. The numbers are startling in their recent increase when comparing prosecutions in previous years. The figures skyrocketed; from just six in 2011 to 13 in 2012, 46 in 2013, 71 in 2014, 321 in 2015 and finally 399 now.

More so, new amendments are being considered by Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly that would allow an even larger scope of power. These changes could permit a wider space for the Thai government to search and intercept information needed to punish alleged offenders.

“These amendments are not in line with international standards and pose a serious risk of increasing criminal prosecutions against human rights activists and journalists who publish research or information online,” says Sutharee Wannasiri, Thailand Human Rights Specialist with Fortify Rights.

“They maintain overly broad and vague provisions as well as disproportionate criminal penalties for violations of the act. This has the potential to exacerbate self-censorship among media agencies and service providers and contributes to repressing the right to freedom of expression in Thailand.”

So far the CCA has been used to restrict the right to expression, as well as a method to intimidate journalists, rights defenders and government critics.

SEE ALSO: Thailand’s new (and controversial) cyber laws – Part 1: Introduction

Statistics collected by the Thailand-based advocacy group iLaw show that between July 2007 and December 2011, there were 277 criminal cases filed under the CCA. Suspiciously, only 22 percent involved offences regarding actual computer-related crimes. Instead, the numbers indicate that the following 78 percent of prosecutions were related to the distribution of materials and information that were apparently deemed “threatening” or an “act of dissent” to the Junta government. This material, questionably, does not not appear to fit within the ambit of computer crimes.

Appropriately, this has caused alarm among journalists, rights defenders and anyone who might convey actions that appear out of compliance to government opinion.

Censorship is another concern. The new proposed amendments also carry problematic potential for rising online censorship. The already implemented CCA creates unjustifiable levels of restriction of freedom of expression through censoring online content. These new proposed amendments would input broader language to suppress and remove any content deemed a “threat to national security.”

This is particularly dangerous for online users who could possibly support critical rhetoric against the government. In response, charges for such “threats” or “harm” can have penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to BHT100,000 (US$2,800), or both, in some cases.

It is important to note that an invasion of cyber space is equal to an invasion of the home.

SEE ALSO: Facebook blocked temporarily in Thailand… Sign of things to come?

However the vast majority are unaware of how easily government agencies can potentially infiltrate our most reserved online spaces through the use of the CCA and these proposed new amendments. Online social platforms also need to have adequate security and privacy systems in place making unjustified surveillance more difficult.

Amnesty International recently completed a report analyzing the efficacy of encryption systems on popular online messaging services. The report examines their strengths and weaknesses on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being completely secure and 0 being absolutely exposed to surveillance.

The results were troubling. The majority of the messaging services like Line and Viber, were ranked below 50 with issues in their privacy and encryption systems. Many of the services appeared to lack two-way encryption by default.

Thailand Internet giants True and DTAC have also criticized the re-birth of the controversial Single Gateway in Thailand, particularly scrutinizing the government’s misuse of the law in an almost unprecedented way.

Two years prior, when the military Junta initialized it, the Thai government confirmed that they were monitoring social messaging apps like Line. The method was reportedly implemented through a Single Gateway that would filter all websites through one monitored system, similar to China’s ‘Great Firewall’.

This was a worrying prospect for many within the country. Yet after the plan suffered huge criticism, the government apparently decided to drop the restrictive endeavor. Unfortunately, once again, the issue has fearfully reappeared, reigniting major concerns in Thailand all over again.

It is clear that the individuals most at risk of this punitive CCA are often the ones who are simply exercising their right to maintain freedom of expression and truth.

“The enforcement of the existing CCA is already problematic in that anyone with access to the Internet, computer, or mobile phone may be at risk of severe penalties,” Wannasiri says.

“Fortify Rights is aware of this act being used against community-based human rights defenders, particularly those advocating for land and environmental rights. In Thailand’s Loei Province, a Thai gold-mining company has initiated at least six complaints of alleged criminal defamation and violations of the CCA against members of Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group, a community-based group engaged in protests against the mine.”

These charges, already soaked in injustice, could become even more prevalent if these new amendments are to pass in the future.

Wannasiri adds: “The Internet can be an important tool to promote freedom of expression, transparency and participation in decision-making. However, these amendments may turn the internet into a dangerous tool to silence human rights activists and journalists and hinder their important work.”