Thai spying law controversy rages on

06 Feb 2015

The controversy over Thailand’s cyber security-cum-spying law continues to rage on with the junta now offering an olive branch promising compromise and a review the concerns though with the draft already approved by the cabinet and on its way it is unclear what official role the review commission could play other than being a distraction.

At its heart, the draft national cyber security bill removes the role of the courts in authorising wiretaps and puts it under the control of the Digital Economy Commission which is chaired by the Prime Minister.

It also empowers the commission to order any private telecommunications operator to act or refraining from acting in any way and also compels companies to provide information on request as well as hand over executives for questioning.

The portfolio of digital economy laws also has a new frequency act that gives the final say in spectrum allocation to the Digital Economy Commission and emancipates the telecommunications regulator, leaving it in charge only of commercial spectrum and imposing strict budget controls on the former autonomous agency.

State-owned CAT Telecom has already announced it will write to the new commission when it is up and running to ask for free 1800-MHz spectrum to operate networks for the public services.

Among the laws is the draft data privacy law which puts the same Digital Economy Commission in charge of data privacy.

The most vocal apologist, sorry, defender of the digital economy laws touring the airwaves is the director of the MICT’s Electronic Transaction Development Agency (ETDA), Surangkana Wayuparp.

She said that the lack of judicial oversight was just a mistake that would be rectified. Perhaps if we take her word for it, but it is a mistake that was in a draft law and one that has been approved by the cabinet.

To that point, Deputy Prime Minister Pridiyathorn Devakul announced that a committee would be set up to take the public’s concerns into account and revise the law. However, apart from its PR value, it is unclear how the committee’s findings would fit in as the draft makes its way to the junta-appointed legislature for three readings..

Perhaps the only person who gave a straight answer was Deputy Prime Minister Vishnu Krua-ngam who said that if it was an oversight, it would be fixed in the legislature, but if it was there intentionally, then that is another matter.

But while on the one hand they are signalling compromise with the aforementioned committee, the junta are also threatening that 4G will be delayed unless the laws are passed quickly, and of course everyone loves more bandwidth.

But back to EDTA’s Surangkana who defended the indemnity granted to private contractors who may engage in espionage under the cyber security bill saying that without such indemnity nobody would dare do any work for the commission. Highly paid, private sector contractors are needed, she argued, as Thailand has a tiny pool of security professionals to call on.

She said the same was true for need for the Digital Economy Commission to work in the role of data privacy commissioner - that Thailand lacks skilled personnel.

So, in other words, Thailand needs to put absolute power into the hands of a small committee, give its agents protection from the law, and also kick out the law in the decision-making process while they are at it just because nobody will work for the MICT? Sounds about right.

ICT Minister Group Captian Pornchai Rujiprapa has said in December that the MICT will hire 700 people this year as it rebrands, sorry, reorganises, itself into the Ministry of Digital Economy.

Good luck. I used to work for them and I would never, ever go back.

Before becoming a journalist, I was a civil servant at the ICT Ministry and yes, I did know Surangkana from way back then. Earning less than the average street beggar was not really a problem for many of us but spending a week clearing my name after being put through the wringer for crossing a provincial border without prior permission to attend a work meeting was just one of the many cases of bureaucratic red-tape episodes of insanity that led to my resignation.

Perhaps my best memory of working there was the requirement to wear Thai traditional dress on Fridays, the parties on CAT’s helicopter pad and the super-duper fast Internet - we were plugged straight into CAT’s backbone with every PC having external IPs. It was so raw in fact we did not even have a DHCP server and each morning we had to keep changing IPs manually to find an empty address while avoiding clashing with the Minister’s PC, but I digress.

So who are they hiring to bring us into this brave new world? One person ETDA has successfully recruited is LINE Thailand General Manager Ratthasart Korrasud who has left the Japanese company and will soon start his new job in what can only be described as a blatant display of a revolving-door policy.

Both the police and politicians have over the years thanked LINE for providing them access to its messaging chat logs in order to scan for republican dissent. LINE has repeatedly denied the praise however.

If Prime Minister Prayuth Chanocha has any say in it, the brave new world the Digital Economy Commission is building might literally be a version of Huxley’s Brave New World.

General Prayuth has ordered his government to profile people based on income, career, amount of land owned and issue different coloured ID cards for each category. The reason, ostensibly, is so that the government can better provide help to the farmers who most need government aid.

The Dear Leader obviously has a love with segregation and tracking. In the wake of the Koh Tao murders of two British tourists, General Prayuth suggested that all foreigners be tagged with RFID wristbands so they can be safe. No prizes for guessing the reception that idea generated in the expat community.

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