Pavel Farhan - Fellow at APNIC48 & APAN49. NetMission Ambassador, ICANN68 NextGen.
You would think it was cruel enough that life in the ‘land of smiles’ was at a standstill due to the nationwide lockdown, and a 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew, but on top of that you add an alcohol ban? What were you thinking, exactly? These were the thoughts of many Thai nationals and foreign expats, directed towards the decision taken by the Thai government last month when Thailand implemented an alcohol ban.
The ban, which was initially supposed to last from April 10th to 20th, was an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus by preventing the gathering of drinkers and holding of private parties during the Thai New Year, or Songkran. However, the ban ended up being extended until the 3rd of May before the Thai government decided to retract their decision2. This was probably one of the wisest pronouncements ever made by the government because I can tell you that we were this close to rioting on the streets when it seemed like the ban wasn’t about to be lifted.
Then again, once the ban was withdrawn, the country went into absolute chaos as people flocked to their nearest supermarkets to stock up on alcohol in case the government decided to change their minds and hit them with another surprise ban; talk about the concept of social distancing which seemed to have gone down the drain. It’s still uncertain whether the alcohol ban was a big factor or not in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases in Thailand, but what the pandemic did reveal was that booze is apparently a necessity. Well, noted!
Anyways, now that I’ve entertained you a bit and got your attention, it’s time to talk about more significant matters, particularly the ingenuity of some apps that have risen to the occasion during this time of crisis, fighting fake news, and also the concerns regarding privacy posed by some.
Covid Tracker (CovidTracker.5Lab.co)
Encountering fake news on the Internet is another battle every netizen has to fight every day. As the coronavirus spreads, unreliable and false information is also spreading around the world to a great extent. The internet is a wellspring of hoaxes, half-truths and misinformation on the coronavirus and this means we all need to be skeptical.
When the virus hit the country hard, a local IT company named 5Lab saw that false reports were spreading quicker than the virus in Thailand. They decided to remedy this by developing a Covid Tracker, an interactive map of Thailand that displays the location of the reported cases and a link to their sources to ensure that it’s credible. It also lists the number of reported cases and also shows any fake news that’s being spread around.
Social media plays a significant role in spreading fake news but some people are clueless about this. With the aim of preventing panic among the general public, Covid Tracker is helping to provide solid information about the current virus situation—about places that should be avoided, places of quarantine, sterilized locations and places that are under inspection.
10 Gigabytes of Free Data for 30 Days
Last month, Thailand designed a public assistance scheme for mobile users so that they can register for 10 free gigabytes of data usage. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) took this initiative to provide 30 days of free mobile internet and a broadband speed upgrade to around 30 million mobile subscribers, in order to support the government’s policy of social distancing and encouraging people to work from home, while helping people cut utility bills during the spread of the coronavirus. But you need a Thai ID card to get your free internet and speed upgrade, which means once again any foreign expats living in the country get barred from this privilege.
Free sim cards…but at what price?
As countries around the world were trying to fight the spread of the coronavirus, several governments decided to use technology to monitor quarantines and Thailand was no different. Before the country declared a state of emergency and imposed a ban on international flights, there were still many tourists traveling into the country in the midst of the pandemic.
In order to help track all new arrivals, Thailand distributed free SIM cards with unlimited internet service to every foreigner as well as Thais who had travelled from countries that have been designated as ‘high risk’ of Covid-19 infections at its airports before they pass through immigration counters. But of course there is a catch – every individual was also required to download a mobile app developed by Airports of Thailand (AoT) in a move to track travelers who come from risky countries and those considered to require self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
The government mandated all inbound foreign travelers to provide personal contact information which included phone numbers, addresses, passport number and name through the app. According to the authorities, “the app will track the position of the phone for 14 days and will alert authorities if it leaves the designated quarantine area. After 14 days have passed, it will stop tracking and the system will delete the data immediately.” While that’s what the government claims, there are concerns that tracking measures to contain the pandemic could pave the way for greater government surveillance.
Big Brother the Thai Government is Watching You
You’d think now that there’s an international flights ban (extended til June 30th) that there are no new inbound travelers, which means the app is useless and the government can’t track anyone, right? Well, I’ve got news for you because this time the government has absolutely outdone themselves in order to make sure they definitely know where you are.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all the shopping malls, shopping centers and restaurants in the country were closed until Sunday, May 17th, when the government announced that they will be easing those restrictions1. After hearing this, I too, like the millions of people in the country rejoiced that the house arrest is finally over and after two months, we were finally allowed to set foot in a mall again. However, sometimes such wishes come with a price.
The Digital Economy and Society Ministry launched yet another app known as Thai Chana or “Thais win”. The app claims to be a powerful tool to help people assess their coronavirus infection risk, assist health authorities in tracking users in close contact with infected people and prevent transmission among healthcare workers. So, how exactly, you might ask? Well, here’s the tea – the development of this app was aimed to allegedly facilitate the collection and records of shopper’s movements, inside shops throughout the shopping malls.
So now, whenever I step into a mall, I have to scan a QR code for the app which will then be downloaded on my phone and let the government know exactly which mall I’m at. When I enter a supermarket or accessory store, the government will know exactly which one. Whether I prefer KFC or McDonalds, the government will also most certainly know that. What’s worse is that the prime minister of the country has said to accept this as the “new normal” even though it obviously compromises the privacy of every person living in the country.
The Human Rights Watch had recently published an article which extensively talked about how the governments and the private sector should not promote or use unproven and untested technology. “Containing the pandemic and reopening society are essential goals. However the government can do this without pervasive surveillance.” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
It seems Thailand did not get that memo though. If the government insists on tracking its people, it must transparently protect their privacy. This should include assurances that, in order to prevent abuse, the system will erase personal data after a certain time. However, no details have been provided on what personal information the people would expose once they download this app. The pandemic must not be used as an excuse to suppress freedom. There are fears that the data will used for more than just Covid-19 tracking and could even be sold and such concerns are justified because Thailand doesn’t have the best record when it comes to human rights.