December 3 2020 GM
Time: 9:00am EST / 1:00pm UTC+0
Topic of discussion: The rise of online censorship and surveillance in Myanmar
Phyu Phyu Kyaw (@phyukyaw on Mattermost), is our Glitter Meetup Guest. We discussed their report identifying and analyzing various surveillance and censorship tactics currently in use by the authorities in Myanmar.
- As Kyaw was talking to the civil society who are advocating to the authorities, they came to realise that these people don’t really have a report looking into the government’s budget nor the equipment that the government have - it is also because there is almost no information available. People cannot request the data from the government due to the lack of right to information as well.
- Which is why Kyaw wanted to identify the various surveillance and censorship technologies and strategies deployed by the government and military in Myanmar. Their goal was to do the research and hoping that research would serve as a seed that will ultimately sprout and grow into a tree of resistance, hope, and change!
Speaker: Phyu Phyu Kyaw
- Myanmar was under the military junta for decades and transitioning to civilian rule
- In terms of connectivity, a sim card used to cost 1000 USD ten years ago! But now it is less than 1 USD and right now 67 millions are connected (which is even more than the population - 51 million)
- But still there are a lot of areas where there is no access at all - no infrastructure - and there is internet restriction in Rakhine and Paletwa
Based on your report, what are the most troubling trends you observed regarding Internet usage or development.
- So in Myanmar, we don't have laws safeguarding the people. We don't have data protection nor lawful interception. But the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) designated approximately 4 million USD (6,190 million kyats) to implement a Lawful Interception System for 2019-2020. These funds came in addition to the approximately 4.6 million USD that was spent in 2017 on a Social Media Monitoring Team (SMMT).
- Another troubling thing is not only the government is restricting the internet, but also blocking the news websites which are covering the news in Rakhine - the conflict area
- With OONI's support, Phyu Phyu ran OONI and the analysis shows that approximately 200 URLs are blocked in Myanmar. The majority of these blocked sites are pornographic websites, however, 41 media websites were also found to be blocked between January 1 and July 27, 2020.
- The disclaimer here is that the team looked at the Press Council's list of the tabloid websites. They are not that reliable, but the team didn't have any to look at so we would say there are 41 media websites.
- The blocking of media websites varies across different networks in Myanmar because different Internet Service Providers (ISPs) block different sites. Despite this variance in blocking across networks, most of the blocked media websites were blocked on at least three local networks in the country.
- There are legitimate and trusted media sources, including Mandalay In-Depth News, KarenNews, Narinjara News, Development Media Group, and Voice of Myanmar. As reported by Qurium Media Foundation, these sites remained blocked for five additional months. OONI measurements conducted as part of this research study also show that Rohingya blogs such as RohingyaKhobor, Rohingya News Banks, and The Stateless Rohingya were blocked.
- Rural communities are impacted the most, with some trying to experiment with mesh networking. Also mesh networking used to be illegal, but we are not sure of its current status.
People felt insecure online. Can you explain a bit about how citizens view the Internet?
- Phyu Phyu talked to human rights defenders, journalists, activists and the researchers to learn what their experience have been.
- 79% of surveyed human rights defenders, journalists, activists, and researchers do not feel secure online. This level of insecurity is attributable to high levels of intimidation and physical surveillance by the authorities.
- 45% of those individuals surveyed that work in rights-related fields acknowledge they engage in online self-censorship to avoid harassment from authorities. This heightened level is attributable to fears related to, and experience with, social media monitoring and surveillance.
- And ... 72% of those who self-censor are women. This includes those working on the peace process, human rights violations documentation, digital rights, and legal reforms.
The support system for the Myanmar police
- The police in Myanmar have the capability to surveil and seize devices and data. They have confiscated devices from human rights defenders, activists, and journalists and extracted information from the devices.
- It is common to know someone that has been harassed or targeted by government officials because of their social media activity. One activist said he got threatened by a very senior government officials after he posted on Facebook about a protest in 15 mins.
- The police are constantly monitoring the human rights defenders, the activists and the journalists who are in their radar - which is why others are starting to self-censor.
- As part of the study, relevant calls for tender that were published on the authorities’ websites were monitored and documented from September 2016 to July 2020
- The goal of the monitoring was to document what types of equipment the authorities were purchasing. Most of the relevant tenders were from the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
Since others may be considering doing research in their own country/region, what advice do you have regarding interviewing HRD folks? Did you learn anything about the process?
- YES. Especially for the digital security trainers. Not the process, but while talking to them, everyone emphasized the importance of psycho social well being and how it is important to be treated the same as digital or physical security.
- Prior to the NLD’s assumption of power, public support existed for activists and journalists to uncover the injustices perpetrated by the military. Since the NLD came to power, however, pro-NLD supporters aggressively criticize activists and journalists if they attempt to hold the authorities accountable. These criticisms often get back to the families and friends of the activists and journalists. This can have a large negative impact on their psychological well-being, as family members will accuse them of being “traitors.”
There was a marked increase of self-censorship, especially after the Gambia filed a case in the International Court of Justice. Why was Gambia so interested?
- Because there is racism and sexism rooted here. For the Chinese or Indian descendants, there are a lot of discrimination on daily basics. Since the filing of the case, Muslim human rights defenders in Myanmar said they are self-censoring online to avoid being attacked by NLD loyalists. Feelings of insecurity have increased as well in the wake of the ICJ hearings.
Regarding self-censorship, this is a huge problem for SEA in general. Did you find any tactics or strategies that advocates are using to help counter self-censorship?
- Phyu Phyu personally feels the tactics or strategies would be self-care and the need of psycho social well-being support.
In terms of obtaining government documents, what was that process like? And are you seeing an increase in investment in surveillance technologies, like the one used for phone surveillance?
- For the government documents, Phyu Phyu was lucky to get those in their hands from the other people since those are not published by the government.
- It is hard to say whether it is increasing or not since the budget nor the call for tender or any of the process is not transparent.
The Specialized Training for Myanmar’s Police
- This was very troubling "According to ACCDP̟ Myanmar police also receive Specialized Training through the project̤ Through practical training covering topics including digital forensics̟ malware analysis̟ cyber investigations and the Darknet̟ participants in the project improve their capabilities in data extraction and interpretation̟ cyber security̟ and online investigations̤ "
- Most of the people's perspective is that the police don't know much, but it seems they have been supported by InterPol and MyPol. MyPol is an EU-based project started in 2016, supports Myanmar police reform in the areas of community policing, crowd management, crime investigation, and human resource management. You can find the list of the training and the country involved in the Annex in the report as well
Rural areas̟ authorities exercising far broader ̷ and more invasive ̷ powers for surveillance threats and risks.
- Myanmar still has the conflicts going on and off - right now in Rakhine, it is ongoing. There are a lot of human rights violation in the rural areas which are in the conflict areas
- For example, they would arrest a Kachin ethnic person saying they are in association with the Kachin ethnic arm organization. People are being arrested just simply existing as ethnic people. When their family members take the case to the court, the military files the case against them using criminalized defamation law. That is the situation people are facing in the conflict ethnic areas.
- Currently, many laws exist in Myanmar which can be used to harass or arrest activists and those who are critical of the government or military. Many of the participants therefore expressed concerns regarding the existing legal framework. For example, even though the Privacy Law is meant to protect the Myanmar people from state surveillance, the law has been heavily criticized due to its vague and overly broad provisions.
Social Media: authorities are creating fake accounts and interacting with HRDs online
Is there anything you wish platforms would do in Myanmar to curtail harassment and surveillance? If any of us were speaking to facebook, twitter, etc, what could they say in regards to Myanmar? Pigging back on that question, what can folks outside of Myanmar do to help to bring attention. For example, you mention EU bodies above? Could attention be brought to this?
- It is tricky to advocate for the takedown of the fake accounts, but the platforms need to investigate the network of military and the police - authorities - using it to abuse their power and surveil the people.
- The support system the EU is offering to the countries with the human rights violation records need to be done in the transparent way - can the civil society audit - and think of what they are supporting.
- We have had examples when in the early 2010s, the EU gave a training to the police how to handle chaos, and the police did really well cracking down the students protesting the educational reform.
What things do women/gnc need to help better confront the realities you mention in the report
- To give a bit of context, in the past people stood with human rights defenders and journalists when the military ruled. Now that NLD becomes the government, the human rights defenders, activists and the journalists are heavily criticised and attacked - even from their close friends.
- One mentioned getting the support from the loved ones and the friends.
- In terms of legal reform, we really need people to stand with the organizations and individuals to abolish and/or amend the problematic laws.
- legal protection must go beyond just Myanmar citizens to encompass minorities who are not being granted citizenship due to their religious or ethnic affiliations.