Following in China’s footsteps: Will Thailand implement Beijing’s surveillance measures?

Cartoon of facial recognition technology

China is exporting its AI-driven surveillance technology to Thailand. Thais should be concerned about further privacy breaches and freedom of speech limits.  

By Zachary Frye

In China, facial recognition technology, abetted by artificial intelligence (AI), forms a backdrop to citizen’s lives. Their faces are scanned in supermarkets, subway stations and airports, allowing the authorities to identify and track millions of people in real time.

Ostensibly used to reduce crime and fraud, these facial recognition cameras are distinct from regular security cameras. In some cities, rail passengers are unable to enter or exit terminals without being scanned. In others, the faces of jaywalkers and debtors are posted on large billboards in order to shame them into different behaviour.

While the cameras aren’t yet linked to a nationwide tracking system, it sets a troubling precedent for personal security the freedom of Chinese citizens in the age of the Internet.

People leaving Shanghai subway station
2.6 million cameras keep track of Shanghai’s citizens every day, 113 per 1,000 people.
Photo: Marc Van Der Chijs

The international response to Beijing’s dystopian use of AI has been mixed. Although some countries are alarmed, many are buying the technology for themselves. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN nations, including Thailand, are purchasing Chinese AI software.

In 2019, Thailand struck a deal with the Chinese firm Megvii, which makes AI-enhanced surveillance and deep-learning software. The Thai government is also opening a 5G testbed with Huawei, the embattled Chinese phone maker accused of implanting espionage technology in its offerings.

While there is clearly an interest in the potential of Chinese technology, the Thai government must tread carefully. Any integration of these systems in the coming years should feature stringent mechanisms to prevent misuse.  

Thai netizens are fully integrated

Western Internet platforms such as Facebook and Google are extremely popular in Thailand. Meanwhile, China prevents its citizens from accessing these sites.

The Chinese government is unwilling to use western platforms because it would limit Beijing’s access to its citizens’ data. Instead, Chinese netizens use domestic-made social media platforms, offering Beijing a steady stream of data on its citizens.

While there is little evidence that Thailand plans to introduce strict public monitoring on par with the Chinese, Thais have seen their digital freedom curtailed in recent years. With new surveillance technology, the Thai government could further limit netizens’ freedom.

Thais should be concerned about further encroachment on their digital privacy

The military-led government goes to great lengths to keep tabs on its citizens online, especially surrounding delicate topics like the monarchy.

Thailand has some of the strictest royal defamation laws in the world. The legislation, known as lese-majeste, has been a part of the criminal code since 1908.

Lese-majeste is enshrined to protect the monarchy from public insults. If successfully prosecuted under Thai law, jail terms are between three and 15 years.

Since the coup in 2014, dozens of people have been prosecuted under the lese-majeste laws, some involving errant social media posts. The authorities even considered including the act of viewing derisory content as a transgression.

If digital surveillance technology becomes more sophisticated, it is possible that more citizens could face legal trouble over the provision.

The Thai government has already taken legal steps to enhance netizen surveillance. In early 2019, the government passed a controversial cybersecurity law that could pave the way toward increased scrutiny.

A major red flag was the bill’s language that allowed the Thai government to search and seize Internet user data and equipment without a court order. Although ostensibly created to deal with national security issues, mishandling the law could result in serious privacy breaches.

Recent actions by Thailand’s Digital Economy and Society Ministry should also give pause to Thai Internet users.

After an ‘anti-fake news’ office was created last August, the ministry started telling coffee shop owners to turn in their customer’s WiFi browsing histories. The government says the move will prevent abuse on internet platforms, not to track down customers or collect personal data.

Democracy advocates should shudder at recent Chinese tech purchases

Despite the assurances, Thai authorities are abusing the nation’s cybersecurity and lese-majeste laws for political ends. In October 2019, the government arrested a pro-democracy advocate for criticizing a royal motorcade that was holding up Bangkok traffic on Twitter, a social media platform.

The suspect was released on bail on the condition that he refrains from posting similar content in the future.

Actions such as these demonstrate a strong willingness to control public dissent. Although the prospect of AI-enhanced cameras monitoring Thai citizens may seem farfetched, the government clearly wants to keep the public’s views in check. There is no reason to think new technologies won’t be used to further this goal.

Although it is possible to use Chinese made technologies without abusing them, the current regime’s behaviour has done nothing to indicate that it will exercise restraint and refrain from using them nefariously.

If it wants to implement AI technology without leaving room for abuse, the government will need to tread carefully.

The Thai government has a legitimate need to keep up with evolving cybercrime and protect Thai citizens but it needs to balance these realities with privacy rights.

Surveillance technology is a powerful weapon. The government’s manipulation of cybersecurity laws and lese-majeste provisions have given no indication that Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government can be trusted to implement Chinese tech for the public benefit. While a surveillance state is still a long way off, the purchases will no doubt further government control.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.