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Facebook Shutdown in Thailand: Surveillance Not Censorship

Date: 
26 January 2017

An investigation released by Privacy International this week reveals the Facebook shut-down Thailand experienced in May 2014, at the height of the military coup, may have had more to do with attempting to surveil online communications, rather than censoring Facebook users. This revelation indicates there could be more to other previous internet shutdowns that have happened during times of political unrest.

In May 2014, following months of protest, the Thai military overthrew the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Six days later, on 28 May 2014 at 15:35, Facebook was shut down for 30 minutes. At the time, Thailand had 28 million Facebook users. What followed was a shambolic attempt by the military government to justify what had caused the shut-down.

An initial response came from the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) who claimed the social network had been shut down to prevent anti-military protests.

“We have blocked Facebook temporarily and tomorrow we will call a meeting with other social media, like Twitter and Instagram, to ask for cooperation from them. Right now there's a campaign to ask for people to stage protests against the army so we need to ask for cooperation from social media to help us stop the spread of critical messages about the coup.”

However, immediately after, two army spokespersons blamed a technical glitch for the shutdown and the permanent secretary of the Ministry of ICT had to correct his version of what had happened.

A month later the telecommunication provider DTAC – a company belonging to the Norwegian group Telenor – released a statement to clarify that they had indeed received a notification from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (the Thai telecommunication regulator) to restrict access to Facebook temporarily. Two days later the Thai regulator harshly criticised DTAC for their decision to release this statement that they called “inappropriate and disrespectful”. “If Thailand has such great problems, Telenor should invest in another place,” they added.

DTAC was forced to apologise but did not deny their previous allegations.

But why was the social network shut down for only 30 minutes? Research carried out by Privacy International led to sources who revealed the actual intent of the government may have been to decrypt the traffic going to Facebook.

One source from the private sector told Privacy International that she had received a phone call a few minutes after the shutdown from someone involved with the military government. They told the source to get in touch with Facebook and ask them to reroute the traffic over http instead of https. This would allow the Thai Government to access Thai Facebook users’ communications on the network.  There is no evidence, however, that the attempt to contact Facebook was successful or that the Thai Government managed to circumvent encryption.

This would not be the military government’s last try at monitoring Facebook.  A month later, in June 2014, Thailand attempted to monitor Facebook users using a fake Facebook app that collected users’ data. When internet users normally try accessing blocked websites, they are redirected to a landing page of the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD). Instead, in June 2014, internet users were redirected to a different page when trying to access the many blacklisted websites. The page featured a misleading “Login to Facebook” button. By pressing this button, users were in fact downloading an app that granted the crimes division access to the users' data.

Thailand is not the only country where internet shutdowns may have more to do with the government trying to surveil communications of their citizens, rather than an attempt to censor communications. In Egypt, Google was temporarily shut down as the government was attempting to block the encrypted app Signal. The Egyptian government hoped that by blocking Signal, Egyptian citizens would instead use less secure means of communications that could more easily be surveilled.

In a world where surveillance is about power, oppressive regimes are increasingly adopting new and innovative ways to gain access to their citizens’ communications and identify those speaking out against the establishment.  While websites being blocked and internet shut downs can appear to be about censorship and undermining free speech, we must bear in mind there may well be other motives. Privacy International encourages further research into these issues.