Thailand and governments around the world have increasingly cited counter-terrorism as a justification for new security laws. With the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to target certain groups, governments have begun monitoring citizens’ smartphones with mass data collection.
In 2019, the Government of Thailand announced residents of three provinces in the deep south, as well as some districts of Songkhla, would have to re-register their SIM cards with fingerprints and facial images – something not required in other regions of the Buddhist-majority nation.
Last year, the order went into effect as lockdowns were imposed to contain the Coronavirus pandemic.
Three of the country’s mobile carriers sent text messages to their customers and then cut off service to thousands of people who failed to register by the deadline. The order affected all residents, but Malay Muslims were disproportionately affected.
Human rights groups have questioned the need for biometrics in southern provinces alone given that many of them were elderly or live in villages, and could not travel to cities in time to register their data.
Those in the Malay-speaking southern region rejected the order, wary of government surveillance.
According to Anchana Heemmina, founder of Duay Jai Group, a human rights organization, “the government believes that every single person within its southern borders is engaged in terrorism and anti-national activities.”
Thailand’s ethnic profiling of Malay Muslims
We have no idea who is accessing our data, nor how it is being used. It amounts to ethnic profiling of Malay Muslims to require biometric information only for mobile phone users in the deep south,” she told Reuters.
The Government of Thailand claims the measures will help prevent violence in the region, and biometrics can prevent identity theft and explosives detonation using unregistered SIMs.
“Protecting civil rights and maintaining public safety is a balancing act,” said Ronnasil Poosara, commander of the police operation centre for the southern border provinces.
Since the order, attacks triggered by mobile phones have declined, he said. Biometrics have also made tracking suspects easier.
As part of an effort to improve investigations into insurgent attacks in southern Thailand, security forces began collecting DNA samples from Malay Muslims in 2012.
According to Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, DNA samples have been collected at checkpoints and during raids of homes and schools in recent years, often without consent.
Central surveillance systems
From January to September 2019, only 140 such cases were documented by the human rights group. However, the authorities have denied that samples were taken without consent.
Across the southern border provinces, authorities have installed more than 8,000 cameras with artificial intelligence capabilities that are connected to a central surveillance system, which authorities say will ensure the safety of local residents.
However, there are few details on who provides the technology, how it is used, or how people are protected, said Pornpen.
Under Thailand’s Computer Crime Act of 2016, as well as its Cybersecurity Law of 2019, the government has the authority to conduct surveillance as well as to search and seize data and equipment when deemed a threat to national security.
In the south, special laws counterinsurgency give authorities even more power, while data protection laws fail to protect residents, rights campaigners allege.
Privacy and freedom are violated when facial-recognition technology is utilized … The amount of surveillance is so great that people feel confined all the time. Pornpen described it as “constant harassment.”
Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command says biometrics and facial recognition technology are a key component of its “monitoring and risk notification system” to identify insurgents.
Cutting-edge technologies and surveillance measures
Governments around the world introduced cutting-edge technologies and surveillance measures during the pandemic that human rights groups say are directed at minority groups, and will last after the crisis is over.
Mobile service in Thailand’s south has been suspended following allegations of abuses documented by Human Rights Watch, including “extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture of suspected insurgents”.
The government of Thailand denies these reports.
Pornpen estimated that about a third of the nearly 1 million registered SIM cards have been disconnected or may be lost after the new order took effect, although no official data have been released on the number of suspended numbers.
A lawsuit has been filed by the Cross-Cultural Foundation against the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, a government agency, which issued the order to mobile service providers. A court date has not been set for the case.
SIM cards are already linked to government ID
Those whose services have been cut are cut off from their families, their businesses suffer, their children are unable to do remote study, and they could not access information about COVID, which made them vulnerable,” Pornpen said.
These peoples human rights are gravely violated.”
After buying his elderly mother in southern Thailand a mobile phone, Wannawawee Waeyoh spoke almost every day to her until the line went dead one day.
In accordance with Thailand’s latest state surveillance measure targeting the country’s Muslim-majority southern provinces, the network provider had cut off Wannawawee’s service because he failed to submit his biometric data.
“The service was cut just when my mother was in a very troubled state during COVID. “I had to call my sister to see how she was,” said Wannawawee, 30, who lives about 1,000 kilometres south of Bangkok.
The SIM cards are already linked to government identification so why do they require biometrics, too?