Friends, Followers, Police Officers, and Enemies: Social Surveillance in Thailand
This report examines the emergence of social media based surveillance in Thailand, carried out potentially by people’s own networks of friends and family. It looks at the severe impact this has on personal privacy and points to potential solutions.
In May 2014, Thailand experienced a military coup — its second in eight years. A military government led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power and overthrew the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The Army declared martial law, which was maintained for the following 10 months, and an interim constitution was adopted in July 2014. The declaration of martial law allowed the Thai authorities to take strict public order measures, including reportedly closely monitoring of ‘delinquent’ behaviour such as eating sandwiches in the street or reading George Orwell’s books.
The Thai military government has counted on its police force to monitor online speech in order to curb dissent. But beyond the police force itself, the ruling military government has empowered networks of citizens whom it encourages to denounce those who post online content considered contrary to government policies.
With increased tension between supporters and opponents of the military government, some individuals have also created citizen-led initiatives to spy and inform on other citizens, thereby fostering a network of social surveillance. What does it mean to live in a country where the thoughts you share online, your comments on your friends’ social media statuses, the ‘likes’ you click on as you browse social media sites, can lead you to be imprisoned or worse? This report addresses this issue by shedding light on the use of social media for intelligence purposes and social surveillance in Thailand and the damaging effects such initiatives have had for Thai citizens’ right to privacy.
Political discourse in Thailand has been broadly divided since 2005 into two camps: the red-shirts, supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist Thai Rak Thai party, and the yellow-shirts, who opposed Thaksin. [Political history of Thailand is not the focus of this report. A more detailed analysis can be found in Contemporary Socio-Cultural and Political Perspectives in Thailand by Pranee Liamputtong.] Thaksin, elected in 2001, was the first leader to see an elected government through a full term in office and was particularly popular among the poorer, rural populations living outside of the capital, Bangkok.
But Thaksin’s regime was stained by accusations of corruption and of human right abuses that fuelled his opponents’ discontent. The yellow-shirt supporters’ Alliance for Democracy party gained supporters in a broad range of sectors, drawing largely from Bangkok’s middle class, including sections of the media, teachers’ unions, religious groups and non-governmental organisations (Liamputtong, 2014).
Thaksin was deposed in a military coup in 2006. A self-proclaimed ‘Thaksin supporters’ party won the elections held the following year but the yellow-shirts launched another wave of protests until the newly elected prime minister was forced out of office. The military government once again took power and organised another round of elections in 2011. Once again, the Thaksin camp emerged victorious and Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, was elected.
The yellow-shirts were back in the streets in November 2013 to protest against corruption and to demand the end of the Thaksin presidency. In May 2014, the Royal Thai Armed Forces seized power, imposed martial law, and announced that the government would not be organising elections for an indefinite period of time. Led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the post-coup regime committed serious human right abuses, according to human rights organisations and the United Nations Universal Periodic Review for Thailand. Among those abuses, the interim constitution accords unlimited executive, judicial and legal powers to the head of the NCPO. The constitution also contains troubling positions that conflict with the right to a fair trial — civilians can be arbitrarily tried in military court and are denied the right to appeal. [On 12 September 2016, the NCPO announced they would stop trying civilians in military courts]. These developments and furthers restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly have been condemned by the UN. Amnesty International also documented cases of torture against four men detained in relation to a hand grenade attack in March 2015.
Freedom of expression — particularly online speech — has also been greatly reduced under the NCPO government, with an increasing number of arrests for ‘lèse-majesté’, speaking ill of the monarchy.
The Computer Crime Act (CCA) has been an important legal instrument used to justify increasingly repressive government orders against freedom of expression. Under Section 14 of the Computer Crimes Act it is a crime to import, disseminate or forward false ‘computer data’, if it is done in a manner likely to cause damage to a third party or to the public, to damage the country’s security or to cause panic among the public.
Due to the vague and broad wording of this provision, the Act has been used to prosecute cases of statements resembling lèse-majesté, to prosecute almost any comment about the Royal Family perceived as negative, and overall to repress freedom of expression online in Thailand.
According to the UN, after the 2014 coup, arbitrary application of Article 112 of the Criminal Code (or the lèse-majesté law) and Computer Crimes Act have been ramped up, as cases are tried in camera before military courts, which involves a lack of access by defense lawyers to ‘incriminating evidence’ and harsh prison terms. Since the May 2014 military coup, at least 40 individuals have either been convicted or remain in pre-trial detention for lèse-majesté offences, both under Article 112 of the Criminal Code and under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.”
By condemning as lèse-majesté a wide range of dissenting opinion, the Thai government has been instigating a climate of fear that has affected the right to privacy of citizens. Individuals have been arrested for expressing their opinions on social media, a personal space many expect to be safe from government interference.
Privacy International defines social media as a unique space that cannot be simply assumed to be a public space. It is a space where people should feel safe to express themselves as long as they respect the rules set out by the companies that own the social media they use. Therefore, when the police track content posted on social media, or encourage citizens to denounce their friends, the personal sphere of the individual is violated and their privacy invaded.
The post-coup arrests of social media dissenters often relate to content that they posted before the coup, sometimes by several years. In Tanet’s case [Tanet’s last name is not disclosed for privacy reasons], for instance, a police investigation in 2010 had revealed that he had sent emails to a British citizen who ran a blog called ‘Stop the Lèse-majesté’. The police had hacked into the email account of the British citizen to identify the Thai citizens with whom he had been communicating. However, the police did not prosecute Tanet until four years later, in July 2014, two months after the coup. According to a source familiar with lèse-majesté cases, the NCPO had asked the police for a list of names of people who had criticised the royal family but had not been arrested.
Since the coup, the sentences for posting content that the government considers to be illegal are also increasingly lengthy: Pongsak Sriboonpeng was condemned to 60 years in jail for posting six photos with comments considered to be in violation of lèse-majesté laws. He pleaded guilty. Though his sentence was halved to 30 years, it remains the longest sentence for a lèse-majesté case in Thailand to date.
Three days after the coup, the government announced that cases pertaining to national security — which in Thailand includes lèse-majesté crimes — would take place in military courts, instead of civilian courts. Judges can decide to hold military court trials in camera — behind closed doors — and defendants would no longer have a right of appeal.
The NCPO is seeking ever-broadening powers. In March 2015 it issued Order №13/2559 (2016); article 3 and 4 of the order gives NCPO officers the power to; search premises, people, and vehicles; summon and arrest people; confiscate property; and request information without a warrant if they suspect illegal activities.
The government has various ways of identifying the authors of what it deems to be illegal content on social media; in some cases, the government has arrested opponents in the streets during protests and forced them to hand over their social media passwords. The Thai police has also reportedly created a fake application to phish the data of users trying to log on to Facebook.
According to online newspaper Prachatai, in May 2014, Police Major General Pisit Paoin, the head of a government-appointed working group responsible for censoring the internet, revealed his plan to spy on social media and chat apps. “We’ll send you a friend request. If you accept the friend request, we’ll see if anyone disseminates information which violates the NCPO orders. Be careful, we’ll soon be your friend,” he said.
We will explore in this report the processes of identification the Thai government has been developing to prosecute online speech and how this processes have been detrimental to the right to privacy. In particular, we will look at cases of social surveillance and explore how the current climate has led citizens to initiate their own informant groups.
The right to privacy and online speech
The repression of freedom of expression online in turn raises many questions about privacy. In Thailand the process of identifying individuals who post what is deemed illegal content online has led to citizens’ personal online space being invaded and they risk their private thoughts and opinions being denounced to authorities.
Social media sites are not entirely public spaces. In some countries, citizens have some rights to privacy in the public space but those rights cannot be easily transferred to social media. In a public, physical space, a police officer in many jurisdictions could only follow one person at a time and for a limited amount of time; the person could also potentially realise they are being followed. On social media, a police officer could access potentially thousands of accounts at the same time using social media monitoring technologies that scrape data from user content and profiles, and perform automatic analysis on them.
Regardless of privacy settings, most social media users are communicating with a network, albeit sometimes a very large one, rather than it being a fully ‘public broadcast’, where they assume that anyone and everyone can access it. As such, people who are under no suspicion of any crime should have a reasonable expectation that their social media activity is not routinely watched and controlled by state actors.
To that extent, even if the content is publically available, social media is a partially private space that should require a form of legal authorisation — that specifies the nature of the mission for which access to social media will be needed and the duration of the authorisation — for the police to investigate. When the Thai police phishes users’ data or relies on a network of informants, it is invading the privacy of social media users.
Article 35 of the previous Constitution of Thailand included the right to privacy as a human right [B.E. 2550 (2007) Constitution Article 35: “A person’s family rights, dignity, reputation or the right of privacy shall be protected. The assertion or circulation of a statement or picture in any manner whatsoever to the public, which violates or affects a person’s family rights, dignity, reputation or the right of privacy, shall not be made except for the case which is beneficial to the public”]. Following the May 2014 military coup, all but a few provisions of the 2007 Constitution were suspended. An interim Constitution was promulgated on 22 July 2014. The Interim Constitution does not explicitly uphold the right to privacy and the only provision on the protection and promotion of fundamental rights and freedoms reads: “subject to the provisions of this Constitution, all human dignity, rights, liberties and equality of the people protected by the constitutional convention under a democratic regime of government with the King as the Head of State, and by international obligations bound by Thailand, shall be protected and upheld by this Constitution.”
A new constitution was voted on 7th August 2016 that specifically upholds the right to privacy.
Yet the three cases below reflect the Thai police’s investigation tactics and the impact the subsequent arrests have on Thai citizens’ right to privacy.
Pongsak Sriboonpeng is a 48-year-old former tour operator. In his interviews he claims he became sensitized to poverty and inequality in Thailand during his extensive travels throughout Europe. Under the pseudonym “Sam Parr” that he used on Facebook, Pongsak became increasingly involved in politics, writing blog posts on Thai political history and taking part in red-shirt political rallies. Upon his return to Thailand, Pongsak was required to take care of his elderly mother. Socially isolated, he would spend his free time online meeting new people who shared his views [Pongsak also claimed alcohol led him to post content he would not have otherwise posted]. In June 2014, one month after the coup, Pongsak featured on a list of 17 people summoned by the government. He failed to appear for questioning.
But the police caught up with Pongsak. One of his new online ‘friends’ invited him to visit him in his home town in December 2014. Pongsak had been speaking to him for four or five months and the person had even sent him a mobile phone as a gift. As Pongsak took the bus to visit his friend, the latter frequently messaged him to check on his location. When the bus arrived Pongsak was greeted by police officers and soldiers who boarded the bus to bring him to a military base where he was detained. His ‘friend’ turned out to be one of the officers who interrogated him. He reportedly asked Pongsak: “Don’t you remember me?”
Pongsak was tried for offences related to six Facebook posts. Four of them were posted in September 2013, before the coup. Two of them were from November 2014. The content of the posts could not be reported since the military trial took place in camera, as the content was deemed too offensive to be disclosed. The posts involved a picture of the King’s sculpture, a photo montage and a picture of a banner.
Yet, Reuters reported that the postings included neither threats of violence toward the King or the royal family, nor appeals to abolish the monarchy. Pongsak was judged in a military court, and despite a plea for leniency for health reasons, he was sentenced to 60 years in jail –10 years for each post. His sentence was eventually reduced to 30 years following his guilty plea.
‘Akaradej’ [His name is not disclosed for privacy reasons] was a student at Mahanakorn University of Technology. On Facebook he used the pseudonym “Uncle Dom also loves the King.” In March 2014, one of his Facebook friends, who disagreed with his political views, denounced him to the police for a comment Akaradej had made on a status he had posted. In June 2014, a month after the coup, ten police officers arrested him at his university dormitory and confiscated his electronic devices. Akaradej was denied bail and spent five months in detention before being tried in November 2014. A criminal court condemned him to five years in jail, which was reduced to two and a half years.
In September 2014, nine members of an ultra-royalist group in Chiang Mai province led by Krit Yiammethakorn filed a complaint to the local police against a Facebook user named Rungnapha Khamwichai, who they claimed had posted seven messages deemed to be lèse-majesté. The group had been informed that the user was based in Chiang Mai. The police identified the person behind the account Rungnapha Khamwichai as Sasivimol (also spelled Sasiwimol), a 29-year-old bar tender who worked in a hotel in Chiang Mai and the single mother of two girls.
Sasivimol claimed she had never engaged in any political activity. When plainclothes officers came to her house in September 2014 and confiscated her computer and mobile phone for inspection she told them she was not the author of the messages that they found. According to iLaw, a Thai non-profit organisation fighting for legislative change, she was then told it was not a serious case and that she would be let go if she confessed. Sasivimol claims she was not aware of Article 112 — the law banning lèse-majesté — and did not have access to a lawyer. She decided to do as she was told and confessed to having authored the lèse-majesté posts.
On February 2015, she was told she had been charged with violating Article 112 and taken to military court. She was detained until her trial in August 2015. Sasivimol was sentenced to 56 years in jail — eight years for each of the seven messages — but her sentence was reduced to 28 years because of her confession. The court ignored her retraction of the confession.
Sasivimol’s case is reflective of a form of identification that particularly threatens the right to privacy in Thailand: social surveillance.
The Thai government has deployed substantial resources in order to surveil the population over social media. The Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) — the police unit that specialises in cyber-crime — has deployed a 30-person team that “operates around the clock, scanning online postings and following up complaints from the public on cybercrimes, including royal defamation.” The military also has a force of 60 to 70 officers participating in ‘Information Warfare’ and ‘Information Operations’ to monitor online content and investigate, arrest and charge authors of content deemed to be lèse-majesté offences.
Apart from the police and the military, the Thai government relies largely on the goodwill of Thai citizens to identify what it considers to be offensive speech. The social veneration of the royal family combined with a political context that fosters denunciation has led to the creation of ultra-monarchist groups — like the one in Chiang Mai — that focus on denouncing and harassing people they accuse of lèse-majesté offences. The polarisation of the Thai political scene heightens the tension: according to legal sources we have spoken to, some yellow-shirt supporters are inclined to join groups to accuse red-shirt members of lèse-majesté.
Shortly after the coup, Deputy Police Commissioner General Somyot Poompanmoung created a bounty programme to encourage Thai internet users to denounce dissidents. Thai citizens are encouraged to send pictures of anyone who may be “displaying opposition to the military coup.” For each picture sent, the denunciator receives 500 Baht (approximately US $14). As mentioned earlier, signs of dissent that have elicited Thai authorities’ interest have reportedly included reading George Orwell’s books and eating sandwiches outside.
Below are examples of citizen groups whose purpose is to report what is deemed as illegal online content.
The Cyber Scouts is an initiative that was ‘reactivated’ in August 2014 by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) as part of a collaboration with 200 schools. The original initiative had been created in 2010 as a collaboration between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of ICT, though the project collapsed after a few months following the change of government. The goal of Cyber Scouts has been to create a youth movement to police the internet, in search of “distorted information” and lèse-majesté content.
Using social media, teenagers recruited by Cyber Scouts are expected to monitor the internet and denounce anything illegal according to Thai law. They get ‘points’ for doing so and outstanding ‘cyber scouts’ see their profiles featured on the Cyber Scouts website. The Ministry of ICT expects Cyber Scouts to become ‘ambassadors’ of ‘good’ internet practices, as they can “demonstrate [to] their close friends, parents or acquaintances [how] to use internet appropriately [sic].”
In 2011, before the project collapsed, one Cyber Scout told Agence France Presse (AFP) about his one-day training: “I learned about the history of the King, his Majesty, and how divine he is … and also how to use a computer, the internet and Facebook. Not many people know about the project. They may think they’re talking to a friend because I don’t tell them I’m a cyber scout. I feel I am doing an important job.”
The Cyber Scouts are of particular concern, as unlike citizen-led initiatives the government is the organiser, thereby officially endorsing the project. The initiative is emblematic of the government’s attempts to foster a climate of fear in which Thai citizens feel threatened for expressions of political dissent and led to believe there is no safe space.
The current climate of severe repression of dissident speech and government-encouraged denunciations, political polarisation and glorification of the royal family in Thailand has led individuals to create their own platforms to denunciate others.
The Rubbish Collection Organisation (RCO) is an ultra-royalist group founded in April 2014, one month before the coup, by doctor and hospital director Reintong Nannah [also spelled Rienthong Nanna]. Nannah stated in an interview that his goal was to “bring all lèse-majesté offenders to justice”.
According to the Bangkok Post, which was present during the group’s first meeting, RCO members are mostly retired soldiers. It is unclear how many people support the RCO. Nannah had claimed to the Bangkok Post that the group already had 2,000 ‘teams’ but its first meeting — where the interview took place — was only joined by 25 people. As of May 2016, over 224,000 users had ‘liked’ their Facebook page.
The RCO’s first target was Chatwadee Rose Amornphat, a Thai-British dual citizen. Chatwadee works as a hairdresser in London and is also one of the most outspoken opponents of lèse-majesté laws and regularly posts videos lampooning the Royal Family.
In the UK, Chatwadee had been stalked and harassed by pro-monarchy groups. After the coup, the government requested Chatwadee’s extradition from the UK to Thailand; the UK has refused the request as lèse-majesté is not considered a crime under British law.
In May 2015, a woman who goes by the name Tananun Buranasiri on Facebook said she had been fired from her job after her employer was informed that she posted lèse-majesté content on Facebook. RCO had orchestrated a bullying campaign offline and online against Tananun. She was ‘doxed’: her personal information, including her workplace, details on her husband and children were posted on RCO’s Facebook page. RCO has also filed a legal complaint against Tananun. RCO also announced in October 2015 they would file criminal charges against Facebook and YouTube for hosting lèse-majesté material.
Social Sanction (which is known by the term ‘the SS’) is an ultra-royalist group that has been active since 2010. The SS’ Facebook page description claims their goal is “to increase public awareness of corruption and create pressure to combat it, and to stop the crime of lèse-majesté.” [As of May 2016, the SS have 2,131 “likes” on their Facebook page.]
The SS became well-known with the arrest of Norawase Yotpiyasathien, a business administration student from Kasetsart University, for his blog posts deemed to contain content insulting the royal family. He was, at 23 years old, the youngest person arrested for lèse-majesté, which caused concern among students.
The SS exposed Norawase and published his name, photos, personal address and phone numbers online. When he was arrested the SS wrote “another one is down.” Norawase was arrested before the coup, a time when lèse-majesté sentences were significantly more lenient and he was therefore released on bail after a few days of arrests.
Norawase was not the SS’ first student target. In 2010, they harassed Natthakarn Sakuldarachart, a politically-active high school student, and threatened to harm her if she showed up at the admission examination at Kasetsart University, the university to which she had applied. She eventually did not attend the examination out of fear and failed to qualify to enter Kasetsart University.
Social surveillance is not solely organised by groups. Some individuals take it upon themselves to independently denounce others. “Some people try to become famous on Facebook with mass denunciations,” said one legal source familiar with lèse-majesté cases. [Another source familiar with lèse-majesté cases referred to the case of a man in the North East province that regularly reports evidence of lèse-majesté to the police. People charged with lèse-majesté have to go to court where the complaint has been filed.]
A Facebook user has for instance denounced Chaida Bunyothin and Parichat Klinsrisuk, who posted messages on the Facebook profile of a red-shirt radio host.
The government has been stoking existing tensions within the Thai population and has created a climate in which citizens no longer have a safe space for formulating their thoughts and expressing themselves in an environment that should be considered at least partially private. With the increased focus on arresting dissidents and individuals accused of lèse-majesté, the government has fomented a climate where citizens feel justified in policing each other. With a new constitution that protects the right to privacy, social network users should not be made to self-censor expressions of political dissent. So long as the rules set out by social network companies are respected, users should be fearing neither their government nor civilian ‘militia’ informing on them.
Privacy International has observed social surveillance practices in several countries, including Morocco and China, through the Sesame social network. This practice effectively offers the government free policing and surveillance capabilities over their citizens and reinforces oppressive political dynamics.
Privacy International demands that the Thai government put an end to social surveillance by:
- Dismantling the Cyber Scouts initiative, which has no place in a democratic society. The Thai government therefore must not expect citizens to police one another in private spaces.
- Discouraging civilian-led initiatives of informing on those critical of the current regime or posting lèse-majesté content.
- Condemning ‘doxing’, the practice of releasing personal information about a particular individual over social media.