A fake Facebook application that asked users to part with personal details such as their date of birth and email address has turned out to be part of a government program to monitor anyone who tries to access blocked websites. Since seizing power in May, Thailand's military junta has blocked hundreds of websites deemed a threat to stability.
The bogus app gave the impression that users were merely logging into a website via Facebook. However, by entering their details users unwittingly gave permission to the Thai police's Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) to access personal information stored on their Facebook pages. The fake app was first reported by Thai Netizen Network, a Bangkok-based digital rights group, and TCSD admitted to it last week.
Civil liberty activists in Thailand and America say the move to dupe Internet users marks a worrying escalation in censorship and intimidation under military rule.
How to deceive a Facebook user
About 26 percent of Thais use Facebook, making it one of the most popular social media sites in the country. After taking power on May 22, the military briefly blocked Facebook, a move that drew widespread criticism and was quickly reversed. The junta, known as National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), initially denied involvement.
The fake app – a redirect to a government landing page with a familiar blue "log in with Facebook" button – was twice suspended by Facebook for breaching its platform laws. It has since been suspended. However, activist groups say that hundreds of email addresses had already been harvested.
The TCSD defended its actions in a statement on Friday, saying collecting user information via Facebook was a valid way to police the Internet. “By this way, TCSD can handle more witnesses, which can lead to more prosecutions and will make the online society more clean,” it said.
“This tactic clearly exploits people’s trust in an application like Facebook,” says Danny O’Brian, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “What is disturbing is the extent to which the government is prepared to go to trick people into handing over information.”
In June, the NCPO said it would be traveling to Singapore and Japan to hold meetings with foreign Internet companies including Google and Facebook to discuss censoring online opposition to the coup. The meetings were abruptly called off, however, amid suggestions the companies had all refused to comply.
Since the coup, the NCPO has taken a hard line toward broadcast media, banning some television news and current affairs programs. In some cases, executives are now obliged to send a version of the show to junta officials before being aired. Soldiers have reportedly on several occasions visited newsrooms to monitor journalists as they work.
Last week a prominent political magazine editor Thanapol Eawsakul was detained over comments made on his Facebook page. It was the second time Mr. Thanapol had been arrested. He wrote on Facebook that he had been banned from writing anything critical of the junta, under the terms of his release the first time round. Plain-clothed officers arrested him for a second time at his home shortly after he posted the comment. He has since been released.
500 questioned or detained
According to data collected by lawyers, over 500 people have been questioned or detained by the military since the coup. It’s not known how many of those people were bought in specifically because of activity on social media.
Shawn Crispin, Bangkok representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says it only takes one or two arrests to make the message clear. “The Thai media, which is usually so freewheeling, has effectively shut itself down and we’re seeing very little criticism in the public domain,” he says.
But while Facebook is a target for law enforcement, it's also an avenue for alternative voices in Thailand.
Last week the BBC World Service launched a new pop-up Facebook page in Thailand. The news page is designed to deliver news and information in Thai and English to audiences after the BBC's main site was blocked in Thailand. The pop up site will run on a trail basis for three weeks.
Until 2006, the BBC operated a dedicated Thai-language service. For budget reasons, the service was cut. At the time, BBC officials defended the cut as justified by the flourishing of democracy and media freedom in Thailand.