Myanmar junta bars telecom execs from leaving country while pressuring implementation of spy tech: report

Photo: Bru-nO
Photo: Bru-nO

The military junta is barring senior executives of major telecommunications firms in Myanmar from leaving the country without permission, according to a report by Reuters, in what has been labeled an unprecedented move by the junta to control and access information.

Senior executives, both foreign and Myanmar nationals, must seek special permission to leave the country according to a confidential order from Myanmar’s Posts and Telecommunications Department issued mid-June.

Telecom companies received another letter just a week later telling them they had until July 5 to fully implement spyware that would give them broad surveillance powers to listen in on calls, read messages, monitor web traffic, and track users.

For months, telecom companies and internet service providers have been under mounting pressure to comply to directives from the military junta to restrict internet access, impose nightly internet curfews, and blackout internet for wide swaths of the population. Limited internet access has since returned to Myanmar but the junta continues to work behind the scenes to build an architecture of surveillance on the digital battleground.

There are indications that routine surveillance of democracy activists and political opponents is already happening. According to Frontier, a cybersecurity team under the Myanmar Police Force was set up at the direction of the Ministry of Transport and Communications “to monitor calls and social media use” during the former NLD government’s tenure under the purview of “lawful interception.”

The team had access to an “AI system” capable of detecting key words such as “protest” and “revolution,” which would automatically begin recording phone conversations or text messages and flag the user for future surveillance.

In May, Reuters also reported that telecom and internet service providers in Myanmar were “ordered to install intercept spyware” in the months leading up to the Feb. 1 coup.

Although the decision was presented as coming from the civilian government, people with direct knowledge of the intercept spyware told Reuters that they “knew the army would have control and were told you could not refuse.” 

In a series of reports led by Lighthouse Reports, journalists in Europe revealed that Myanmar security forces were deploying a suite of digital forensic tools and surveillance technologies against dissenters, activists, and political enemies. Many of these technologies were sold to Myanmar by Western companies.

“For example, the information gleaned from phones through the use of digital forensic tools may be used to convict a human rights defender or a journalist of crimes in their jurisdiction,” John Scott Railton of Citizen Lab, a tech security and rights research center at University of Toronto, said in the report.

In a Myanmar Now op-ed, journalist Thin Lei Win argued that the Myanmar junta is now using these technologies to “build a surveillance state.”

“Companies have not only ethical and moral grounds to consider such contexts when doing business, but also a legal responsibility to do so. Now the people of Myanmar may be paying the price for their failures to live up to these responsibilities,” Win wrote.

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