US electronic espionage spreads far

03 Jul 2013

If one is to believe that one is safe from all the electronic espionage going on in the west just by living in a middle-of-the-road country in Southeast Asia, I am sorry, but the cyber spooks have been here. They have been operating for over a decade now, defending the world by listening in on our most intimate secrets.

In my past life, before becoming a journalist, I had a chance to work on a few projects with Edward Snowden’s former employer. Once upon a time I was a lowly civil servant in the Thailand’s ICT ministry working for the foreign affairs bureau. Foreign affairs meant working with foreign aid donors and one of my tasks when I was free from writing speeches for the Minister was to work with the various aid agencies such as the US trade development agency, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank for reconstruction and development.

Incidentally, MICT does not stand for the ministry of internet censorship in Thailand, despite what everyone says nowadays.

Back in 2003 I remember banging my head against the wall with one rural development grant that was up for grabs. Every ICT education or outreach project I wrote up was rejected. After numerous failed attempts my handler (for lack of a better word) suggested that I write up a project to analyse the ICT capacity of central government.

The goal of the grant was for rural development, but central government’s competence is crucial to building up rural communities, a rather convoluted way of thinking. But exasperated and desperate to do something other than write speeches all day, I went along with him.

Lo and behold the grant panel approved our project and sent in some nice analysts to work with the ministry on assessing our technical capacity, or lack thereof. The MICT, despite its name, was composed mainly of lifelong bureaucrats brought over from the office of the civil service commission, the most bureaucratic of all bureaucracies. To give but one example, we did not even have an electronic document tracking system. Everything was done by paper, with people running around with folders all day and tracking was done on paper.

No wonder documents kept going missing and middle pages of meeting minutes kept mysteriously changing, but that is another point for another day.

So after the, ahem, consultants were called in for the, ahem, study one top ranking official told us that she refused to work with foreign spies - even though everyone was ordered to cooperate with our, ahem, friends who were of course here to, ahem, help us.

I apologise, something must have got caught in my throat.

Fast-forwarding to the end, the zillion dollar report came out and as I read through it I was left scratching my head. One would have thought that with the focus being on central government for rural development, the report would have focused on the central office of the MICT where the mnister and everyone was making decisions on where to roll out new projects and the like. But the result was a mere glance over the central office and much stronger focus on the technical capacity of state telcos CAT and TOT. This was in an time before corporatisation and when the communications authority of Thailand still had a monopoly on international internet gateways.

I signed off the report, thinking little of it other than it was such a waste of aid money and that the US taxpayers would be angry if they saw how their aid budget was being squandered.

Ten years later, it suddenly all makes sense.

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