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Information Controls In An Unprotected Legal Landscape

ICFP fellow Phyu Phyu Kyaw studies the rise of online censorship and surveillance in Myanmar

Myanmar has been in the process of transitioning to civilian rule for nearly a decade. In 2011, the country held its inaugural election after fifty years of military control. Two years later, millions of people gained access to the internet for the first time when operating licenses were issued to foreign telecommunication companies. Yet the long-awaited move to widespread connectivity came with complications. Few laws existed at the time to ensure online privacy or freedom of expression, and this lack of legal protection persists today - giving government authorities and members of the military free reign to harass, censor, and surveil at will. In 2020, amidst this uncertain legal landscape, Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellow Phyu Phyu Kyaw set out to identify and analyze the various surveillance and censorship tactics currently in use by the authorities in Myanmar in an effort to shine a light into this otherwise opaque system.

In doing so, Kyaw utilized a diverse combination of analytical methods including technical network measurements, interviews, and research analysis of newspaper archives, media reports, and government publications. Throughout the assessment process, the research study focused not only on the technology in use in the country, but also on the offline spaces and legal loopholes which tend to obscure transparency and allow government and military officials to implement surveillance and censorship practices in unchecked manners.

An OONI Probe network analysis conducted during the first half of 2020 detected approximately 200 blocked URLs in Myanmar. Although the majority of these sites were determined to be pornographic websites, 41 media websites were also found to be blocked (including legitimate and trusted media sources such as Mandalay In-Depth News, KarenNews, Narinjara News, Development Media Group, and Voice of Myanmar). Of note, the OONI measurements revealed that the blocking of media websites in Myanmar varies on a network-level, with different ISPs choosing to block different sites. Nonetheless, despite this variance in blocking, most of the media websites in question were blocked on at least three separate local networks in the country. Instant messaging and circumvention tools - including Tor, Psiphon, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram - were all found to be accessible in Myanmar throughout the testing period.

The research study’s review of official documents indicated that the Myanmar government finances surveillance technologies. A leaked document from 2019 revealed that the Ministry of Transport and Communications allocated approximately $4 million USD to implement a Lawful Interception System in order to monitor voice and traffic data within the country. These funds came in addition to the approximately $4.6 million USD that the government spent in 2017 to create a Social Media Monitoring Team to track events and monitor online activity. From a privacy and digital rights standpoint, both of these developments are troubling given that little transparency exists into their operations (which are permitted to occur within a virtually unrestricted legal framework).

In an effort to more fully understand personal experiences with surveillance and censorship in Myanmar, Kyaw also interviewed individuals working on sensitive issues such as human rights, minority rights, and digital rights. The vast majority (79%) of interviewees reported not feeling secure online. This heightened level of insecurity was tied to significant levels of intimidation and physical surveillance by the authorities. Almost every participant reported receiving login alerts notifying them of hacking attempts on their personal accounts, such as Facebook or Gmail. And although participants reported feeling less vulnerable offline as compared to online, fears of in-person intimidation, harassment, and physical harm were still reported (with such fears often tied to the online activities of the interviewees). Police showing up unannounced to ask questions of event participants or family members is an all-too-common occurrence for those working on sensitive issues in the country.

Widespread fear of online insecurity led to 45% of interviewees working in rights-related fields to report that they engage in online self-censorship in an attempt to avoid harassment from the authorities. Of those who reported self-censoring, 72% were women (many of whom are working on the peace process, legal reforms, digital rights, and documentation of human rights violations). One-third of the women activists who were interviewed reported gender-based harassment, which can be particularly brutal online with Facebook pages being flooded with comments and Messenger inundated with inappropriate pictures. When looking to improve online security in the future, participants therefore emphasized that their psychological well-being should be taken into account, in addition to comprehensive legal reforms and digital safety updates.

Kyaw’s full-length report, The Rise of Online Censorship and Surveillance in Myanmar: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study, is available to read in full here

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About the program: OTF’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) supports examination into how governments in countries, regions, or areas of OTF’s core focus are restricting the free flow of information, impeding access to the open internet, and implementing censorship mechanisms, thereby threatening the ability of global citizens to exercise basic human rights and democracy. The program supports fellows to work within host organizations that are established centers of expertise by offering competitively paid fellowships for three, six, nine, or twelve months in duration.