Phones cut amid surveillance crackdown in Muslim southern Thailand

Teacher Wannawawee Waeyoh spoke almost daily to his elderly mother in southern Thailand after buying her a cell phone, until one day the line was cut.

The network provider had cut service because Wannawawee failed to submit his biometrics to register his Sim under a new government order – the latest state surveillance measure targeting Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southern provinces .

“The service was cut in the middle of Covid, when I was very worried about my mother. I had to call my sister to see if she was okay, ”said Wannawawee (30), who lives in the town of Yala, about 1,000 km south of Bangkok.

“Sim cards are already registered with my national ID card – why do they also need biometric data? “

Some 7,000 people have been killed over the past 16 years in a separatist insurgency here in the border provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

Authorities in Thailand said in 2019 that residents of the three provinces and some districts of Songkhla must re-register their Sim cards with their fingerprints and facial image – which is not required in other parts of the predominantly Buddhist country. .

The order went into effect last year just as lockdowns were imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The country’s three mobile service providers texted customers and then cut services to thousands of people who had not signed up by the deadline. While the order applied to all residents, it disproportionately affected Malaysian Muslims.

Many of them were elderly or lived in villages, meaning they couldn’t get to towns in time to register their data, according to human rights groups who questioned the need to biometrics in the southern provinces alone.

Others chose to reject the order, fearing increased government surveillance in the southern Malay-speaking region.

“The government believes everyone here is involved in insurgency and anti-national activity, and puts security above our privacy and rights,” said Anchana Heemmina, founder of Duay Jai Group, an organization defense of human rights.

“We have no idea who has access to our data, or how it is used. Insisting on biometrics for cell phone users only in the Deep South discriminates and amounts to ethnic profiling of Malaysian Muslims, ”she said.

Thai authorities have said measures are needed to help prevent violence in the region, and biometrics will help eradicate identity theft and the use of unregistered SIM cards in cellphones to detonate devices. explosives.

“Maintaining public security and protecting civil rights is a matter of balance,” said Ronnasil Poosara, commander of the police operations center in the southern border provinces.

Attacks triggered by cellphones have declined since the order, he said, adding that tracking suspects had become “more efficient” with the use of biometrics.

AI tools

Across the world, the fight against terrorism is increasingly cited as the rationale for new security laws and government oversight – from the collection of mass data to the increasing use of artificial intelligence tools ( IA) to target certain groups.

Apple last month warned at least six activists and researchers critical of the Thai government that it believed their iPhones had been targeted by “state-sponsored attackers.”

In Thailand’s southern border provinces, security forces began collecting DNA samples from Malaysian Muslims in 2012 for a database that officials say would help with their investigations into insurgent attacks.

In recent years, security forces have collected DNA samples at checkpoints and during raids on homes and schools, often without consent, said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation.

The human rights group documented around 140 of these coercion cases from January to September 2019 alone.

Authorities have denied that samples were taken without consent.

The southern border provinces were also the first to see the installation of more than 8,000 AI-enabled cameras connected to a central surveillance system that authorities said would ensure the safety of the local population.

But there are few details on who is providing the technology, how it’s used, or what protections people have, Pornpen said.

Thailand’s Computer Crime Law of 2016 and Cyber ​​Security Law of 2019 give the government the power to monitor, search and seize data and equipment in cases deemed to be a threat to national security.

In the south, special anti-insurgency laws give authorities even greater powers, as residents lack adequate data protection, rights activists say.

“The use of facial recognition technology violates the privacy and freedom of people. . . There is so much surveillance that people feel like they are in detention all the time. It’s constant harassment, ”Pornpen said.

A spokesperson for the Homeland Security Operations Command, a unit of the Thai military, said biometrics and facial recognition technology were a critical part of its “risk monitoring and reporting system” to identify separatist insurgents.

More vulnerable

From Colombia to China, governments have rolled out new technology and additional surveillance measures during the pandemic that human rights groups say target minority groups and will survive the health crisis.

The suspension of mobile services in southern Thailand follows alleged abuses documented by Human Rights Watch, including “extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture of suspected insurgents.”

The Thai authorities have denied this information.

No official data has been released on the number of cell phone numbers suspended after the new order went into effect, but Pornpen estimated that around a third of the nearly one million registered Sim cards have been disconnected. or may be cut off.

The Intercultural Foundation filed a complaint on behalf of a Pattani resident against the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, a government agency, which issued the order to mobile service providers. The case is pending.

“Those whose services have been cut – they are cut off from their families, their businesses are affected, their children cannot study remotely and they have not been able to access crucial information about Covid that has made them more vulnerable.” , Pornpen said.

“It is a serious violation of human rights. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

About Anne Wurtsbach

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