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The march towards a Thai surveillance state

Away from the circus show that is the will-they-pay won’t-they-pay 4G saga and the shovelling of money onto the two state telcos to provide connectivity (that the private sector can do very well already) one could almost miss the slow but steady steps towards a surveillance society that have been put in place over the last couple of months.

The telecom regulator appears to be in talks with the Bank of Thailand on regulation of mobile money. The military government has announced a plan to turn all identity cards into debit cards linked to a telephone number and bank account and lest we forget, the “return happiness” smartphone for the poor program is still alive as is the single gateway great firewall of Thailand.

All Thai citizens from 7 years of age now get an ID card which has a biometric fingerprint record on it, not that it is used in practice. Every ID card’s details and picture can be freely downloaded off the card but as we found out in experimenting with number portability, the cryptographic portion is not used.

Nor could it be. A lifetime ago in 2005 I did a story on how the Thai ID card’s TOR called for the Javacard security to be circumvented so that a private key can be lifted off the card. This was ostensibly to allow Javacard applets to be removed and reinstalled in any order without the built-in Javacard security wiping those credentials

The very TOR was bizarre as was the secrecy surrounding it. Then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra put on a public display of transparency ordering the Ministry of Science’s National Electronics and Computer Technology Center to get to the bottom of it, but as its then Director Dr Thaweesak Koanantakool told me, when it came to the test they only had a sample card for a few minutes with the ICT Ministry looking over their shoulder at all times. It was enough for him to declare the card non-compliant, but despite his protests the project went ahead anyway.

Thaksin said that with the smart cards and his PM operations center, ministerial operation centers and departmental operation centers, he would be able to know exactly what every farmer is planting anywhere in the country in real time. He wanted to be Big Brother.

But I digress. The smart card project was a white elephant with billions of baht spent on the cards and server racks and rooms with data walls (and no plan on how to use them). It derailed as none of the governments since dared or bothered to continue Thaksin’s Orwellian vision of total control over our lives. Until now, that is.

Ironic that it is the military that is so opposed to Thaksin that has chosen to realize his original vision.

The Bank of Thailand recently announced that a national e-Payment gateway would be fully operational by 2018. Part of the system would be the any ID scheme allowing people to transfer money via ID number, email address or telephone number.

As usual, officials and apologists have cited the four horsemen of the infocalypse - terrorists, drug dealers, pedophiles, and organized crime - as reasons to cheer on the new order. Actually Thailand has a 5th horseman that “everyone” agrees needs to be stomped out: those opposed to an institution which is increasingly not-discussed in media circles.

What is totally missing from the argument is the voice of civil liberties and privacy. “Why should you care if you do not have anything to hide?” is an answer I get all too often.

It is as if they took the Snowden revelations as a to-do list.

On the one hand, as an outsider wanting to do business in Thailand, all of this means there is a lot of opportunity for systems integrators and consultants to offer their services. The e-payment system alone has a $100,000 (3.5 million baht) price tag according to the BOT.

But the question that nobody seems to want to ask is why is the junta putting in place all these systems of total control if they are soon to step down and hand over power to an elected civilian government which most pundits agree will be easily won by the Thaksinites that the junta kicked out? Either they are totally clueless or they will plan to never hand the keys of these systems over to a civilian regime.

Now that is a scary thought especially given the bias the junta and its lackeys have shown in our industry since it has come to power.