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Chapter: 

I. Background

Located in the heart of the Southeast Asian mainland, Thailand covers an area of 513,115 square kilometers. It is surrounded by Laos to the Northeast, Myanmar to the North and West, Cambodia to the East, and Malaysia to the South. There are 76 provinces, 795 districts and 7,255 tambons or sub-districts.1

The country's governance is within the framework of a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system.  The prime minister is the head of government and a hereditary monarch is the head of state. The current monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the ninth reigning monarch of the Chakkri dynasty and has been the world's longest ruling monarch to date. The judiciary is independent of the executive and legislative branches. Civil society has gained currency since the 1990s, particularly when middle class-led activists advocated written citizen rights to check and balance state power in the drafting of the 1997 constitution, which is historically called "the People's Charter."2

In terms of communications infrastructure, Thailand has six International Internet Gateways (IIGs), which also serve as the National Internet Exchange (NIX), as well as about 20 ISPs that actively carry internet traffic. The market share of major ISPs in 2011 was TOT (34.42%), TRUE (36%), and 3BB (26.47%)3. The number of Internet users in Thailand has increased exponentially from 2.3 million in 2000 to 18.3 million in 2011,4 resulting in an estimated penetration rate of 27.4% in 2011.5 Social media users dominate the scene with the number of Facebook users recorded at 14 million as of March 2012.6

Bangkok has the highest proportion of persons using mobile phone services, at 75.5% of the population. The mobile phone industry has many providers and is characterised by a fair amount of competition. The providers are usually granted licences to offer service throughout the country by the independent regulator, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), which since October 2011 has been fused into a convergent regulator called the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC). There are about five mobile providers in the market; all are privately owned.7

Cultural attitudes to privacy

Thai culture is said to be a collective rather than an individual culture. A sense of privacy therefore is not ingrained in Thai society. Displaying positive emotions in social interactions is also an integral part of Thai culture. Often, Thai people deal with disagreements, minor mistakes, or misfortunes by using the phrase "mai pen rai", translated as "it doesn't matter". Thais are thus generally known to be quite slack in their sociopolitical attitudes and not resolute in demanding their rights. Moreover, politically Thailand has long been a bureaucratic polity in which people have been ruled and led by government and government officials. Any actions taken by the government or government agencies are likely to be perceived as correct and justified. The collection of personal information by government is then considered legitimate by the people.

Thailand has always been a surveillance state. From the ancient to the modern period, extensive collection of people's personal information has been a long-standing practice. Ancient Siamese states8 collected personal information regarding their population of commoners through registration rolls and coded wrist-tattooing systems. In the modern era, the state has kept its population under bureaucratic surveillance through citizen ID cards, household registration passbooks, social welfare cards, and so forth. This trend towards surveillance is also reflected in the absence of privacy awareness. There is no Thai word for "privacy" but rather a transliteration from English, which reads as "the state of being private."

In addition, from an anthropological point of view, Buddhism, which is a predominant religion in Thai society, has also influenced the sense of self-perception of an average Thai person in a direction that may not be conducive to privacy. While Buddhism emphasises individual emancipation, it does not encourage obsession with the self or "possessive individualism" as the notion of privacy might suggest. Buddhist emancipation or "nirvana" could only be attained through the relinquishing of the self and the pursuit of Buddhist precepts.

With regard to public perception of information privacy, it is academically safe to say that those in the upper socioeconomic strata are more concerned about privacy rights and threats from personal data collection and use. This is supported by findings derived from a series of focus groups on surveillance and privacy conducted in Bangkok in 19969. Focus group participants from lower socioeconomic groups were found to be ignorant about surveillance practices and oblivious to the privacy ramifications of such practices. Similarly, a 2001 survey of 1,200 Internet users showed that education and income are positively correlated with privacy awareness. The same research also found that 70% of Internet users recognised their privacy rights online but only 50% knew what action to take when faced with data abuses.10

In a more recent nationwide survey of privacy awareness,11 the studied population is found to rate their privacy perception high in off-line contexts, such as polling booth privacy, police intrusion, and physical notion of privacy (the right to be let alone).  Meanwhile, they rate their perception about privacy at a medium level with regard to surveillance cameras in the workplace, wiretapping for police investigation and quality assurance of services. Lastly, they rate their perception of privacy issues in the following contexts at a low level: consumer database and corporate data sharing, state surveillance such as citizen ID card and job screening through criminal record checks. 

The same survey also finds that in an online context respondents perceive that these Internet applications, in ranking order, are most prone to privacy violation: social networking applications such as Hi5 and Facebook, email, online media, search engines and electronic commerce websites. Moreover, the survey finds that more than half of the surveyed population (58.3 per cent) feels that public participation is needed in order to accomplish personal data protection advocacy, while 25 per cent of respondents indicate that the state should be a main mechanism in personal data policy formulation. Only 16.8 per cent of respondents believe that current personal data protection in the private sector is already sufficient and no more personal data protection is required.

Footnotes

  • 1. http://popcensus.nso.go.th/
  • 2. Maisrikrod, Surin (2008) Civil society, accountability and governance in Thailand: a dim case of participatory democracy. In: Globalization and its Counter-forces in Southeast Asia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, pp. 97-116.
  • 3. Telecommunication Market Report Quater2/2011, Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, available at http://www.nbtc.go.th/phocadownload/policyreg/tdc/MKREPORT2Q2011.pdf
  • 4. http://www.Internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Pitikorn Tengtrakul &, JonM.Peha, Access to and penetration of ICT in rural Thailand, Telecommunications Policy35(2011)141 155.
  • 8. Up until the 1940s, Thailand was known as Siam. The name change was done during the dictatorial rule of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkram who advocated the new country's name on ground of modernization.
  • 9. Pirongrong Ramasoota. 1998. Information Technology and Bureaucratic Surveillance: a Case Study of The Population Information Network (PIN) in Thailand. Information Technology for Development 8: IOS Press (pp.51-64).
  • 10. Nidhima Kananidhinand, 2001. Awareness of information privacy rights in Internet communication in Thailand. Unpublished master's thesis. Department of Journalism, Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University. 
  • 11. Pirongrong Ramasoota and Sopark Panichpapibul, 2012, Online Privacy in Thailand: Public and Strategic Awareness, a Research Report.  Bangkok: Thai Media Policy Center.