Telenor’s sale of Myanmar phone records dangerous, illegal: activists

File photo: Telenor Myanmar
File photo: Telenor Myanmar

Telenor is facing a backlash after announcing its data for 18 million callers to a Lebanese with ties to the ruling junta.

Civil society organizations accuse the Norwegian telecoms giant of “irresponsible disengagement” from the country, citing sale of its Myanmar business – subscriber data included – to M1 Group, a Lebanese firm whose clients include dictatorships from Sudan to Syria.

A Burmese activist said yesterday that hundreds of parties had signed on to a complaint to an international economic group Norway belongs to saying the deal violates its standards for responsibly exiting the country.

“We urge the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] at the national level in Norway to consider our complaint to Telenor as a matter of urgency. Before an increase in killings and torture linked to the deal, the sale to M1 Group must be stopped,” activist Ko Ye told reporters.

More than 474 groups signed the complaint, Ko Ye said, adding:

“The sales must be suspended immediately before it leads to more killing and torture.”

Prior to the coup, the OECD in November said Telenor’s activities in communities razed by the military warranted investigation.

When Telenor leaves Myanmar, it will hand over the caller data for its 18 million Myanmar users to M1, raising fears among activists that the junta could gain access to the information and use it to persecute and arrest them.

Earlier this month, Telenor announced it would sell its Myanmar operations to M1 Group for US$150 million rather than comply with the military government’s draconian demands.

That did not assuage public safety concerns as M1 Group operates mobile networks for a number of totalitarian countries where state surveillance is commonplace. M1 already had financial ties to Myanmar’s military as a shareholder of a telecom infrastructure company that leases phone towers to Mytel, which includes the junta among shareholders.

Concern over what M1 could obtain from caller data, which includes location data for who called whom and when, began as soon as a Telenor spokesperson confirmed to Myanmar Now earlier this week they would be included in the sale.

Telenor exits Myanmar 5 months after military coup

The data, according to experts and campaigners, could be extremely harmful in the junta’s hands. Those opposing the deal say it breaches international law and violates human rights since phone subscribers are required to give their ID cards to register SIM cards in Myanmar.

And the stakes are real – protesters, activists and journalist have been hunted by the junta, which has jailed and killed its perceived enemies since the Feb. 1 coup.

The junta is accused of killing 936 people since February, according to rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). At least 5,400 political prisoners remain detained, the group says.

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