One year on: digital surveillance and security after a coup


23 August 2022

It has been 1,5 years since the 2021 coup in Myanmar. On 25 August it is also the fifth anniversary of the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya, the latest instance in a long history of ethnic cleansing which also includes the Chin and Kachin ethnic groups.

All the while the violence against people of all ethnicities is still happening to a horrifying length. UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews says even children are tortured by the Myanmar military. And only a few days ago, the military burned another village after meeting with the United Nations (UN) special envoy Noeleen Heyzer who called for an end to the violence.

Anybody showing a little resistance or critique is arrested, including journalists. That there are still reporters inside the country shows bravery that many of us, myself included, can not muster.

Under these circumstances, the media has to protect themselves from being tracked, followed and listened in on phone calls.

Since 2019, GGM has conducted digital security workshops as the surveillance increased year by year to total digital authoritarianism nowadays.

We know that the phone and web traffic of all 55 million people inside Myanmar is likely recorded, stored and analysed.

People have been arrested for posting critical messages on Facebook using advanced technology to triangulate their location.

Password-protected phones have been breached with cellphone breaching technology.

Mobile units at major checkpoints have the capacity to download all content from devices including deleted files.

If I can make one plea to the brave reporters, it is to always use encrypted communication for talking to sources and fellow reporters. In some areas, citizens are not familiar with Signal or Telegram, but in the current state of surveillance, it is too risky to communicate via regular phone calls or Facebook messenger. (Facebook states their messages are encrypted but whistleblower Francis Hughes rebuffs the certainty of that statement. As long as the code is not open source it does not meet the standard of safety needed in Myanmar and other similarly repressive environments.)

Secondly, delete files after you’ve shared them with your editor, turn on disappearing messages, delete call logs daily, and have nicknames for contacts. Better yet, have two separate phones; one for work and another for personal communication to take outside.

This phone should have separate ‘clean’ social media accounts without political or sensitive content. As well as a separate Google account as the military is logging into the App and Play stores to see deleted apps or installed on other devices. In some regions, we’re hearing that military officers are suspicious of old-school keypad phones because they can be used as an explosive trigger.

And above all, if they come and arrest you at night destroy all devices as even innocent documents can be used against you as the case against the two Reuters journalists showed when according to their lawyer publicly available information was presented as a national security risk.

Thanks to the donors supporting our digital security workshops with ethnic and national media houses, and above all to the reporters for telling the stories of the Myanmar people.

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