This new controversy arises as Thailand and the United States recently signed a joint communiqué on promoting democracy and democratic principles not only in Thailand but throughout the region. Last week, the newly nominated US Ambassador to Thailand, Robert Godec, told a Senate Committee that his main goal in Bangkok will be the promotion of human rights and especially freedom of expression. The latest Press Freedom Index, published in April by Reporters Without Borders, showed Thailand rising 18 places and leading the way in Southeast Asia although the kingdom’s final overall score on the index decreased.
A Canadian cyber research institute linked with the University of Toronto this week published a report suggesting that 30 people in Thailand with links to street protests in 2020 and 2021 had their phones infected by the international Pegasus spyware. The report which does not conclusively demonstrate the involvement of the Thai government or security agencies, does, however, strongly suggest such a situation which if found to be true, would be in line with Thailand’s laws and in particular the National Intelligence Act of 2019. The controversy comes as the Biden administration’s nominee for US Ambassador to Thailand, last week, told a Senate hearing that his priority in Thailand would be to promote the cause of human rights and in particular freedom of expression.
A comprehensive and highly detailed report published by Canadian organisation The Citizen Lab, a laboratory and cyber security organisation supported by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and part of the University of Toronto, appears to confirm that up to 30 pro-democracy activists and individuals with links to sometimes violent street protests in Bangkok from July 2020 up to the end of last year had their phones infected and targeted by sophisticated Pegasus spyware linked with the Israeli firm NSO Group which is currently being sued by Apple in the United States due to its exploits which target the firm’s smartphones.
The findings of the report were highlighted this week by the Thai legal activist group iLaw and the Asian group Digital Rights, both of which campaign for freedom of expression as a fundamental human right both in Thailand and throughout the region.
Comprehensive and detailed reports on the ‘zero click’ infections on phones linked to political activism
The comprehensive and detailed report listed 30 people whose phones were targeted and identified the date of each infection and the activities of those targeted including their links to raging street protests which wreaked havoc in Bangkok from July 2020 when a protest organised by the Free Youth movement took authorities in the capital by surprise and kicked off intensive and ongoing clashes between the police and, at times, violent protesters on the streets of Bangkok.
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The intensity of the protests, which from August 2020 included previously unheard-of calls for reform of the Thai monarchy led the government, at the end of 2020, to reintroduce the active enforcement of Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code which allows for the prosecution of those who criticise and target the revered Thai monarchy with extremely harsh punishments often handed down by the courts.
Article 112 provision suspended until late 2020 when street protests turned more radical and violent
The use of the draconian legal provision had been suspended before then after a request from Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn to Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha that it should not be used.
Since then, scores of people have been charged under the law including a retired civil servant, Anchan Preelert whose case had been suspended during the hiatus period but who was subsequently jailed for 43 years for sharing subversive content produced by an online activist.
The use of the law, its scope and harsh penalties have become a key issue for foreign international human rights bodies based in Thailand and a major source of tension between them and Thai authorities as well as ultra-conservative royalist groups who vigorously uphold the legal provision as necessary to protect Thailand’s culture, heritage and tradition, a point made by Thai representatives to UN bodies.
Infections on phones allowed Pegasus controllers to track movements and even switch on auditor or video
This week’s report by The Citizen Lab in Toronto Canada identified what it termed ‘zero click’ infections which it confirmed on the phones of 30 people connected with the protest movement whose devices, it said, were infected by software exploits linked to the Pegasus spyware system from October 2020 when the protest activities became especially violent to November 2021.
These smartphone infections had the capacity to allow remote users, deploying the Pegasus spyware, to monitor the whereabouts of the devices, interpret messages and even possibly activate microphones and video cameras.
The people whose smartphones were identified as being infected with the software in this week’s report included key protest leaders such as Arnon Nampa and Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul.
Legal activist and protest leader Arnon Nampa’s phone among those targeted by the spying campaign
Mr Arnon’s phone was a target with the spyware installed in December 2020 while Ms Panusaya’s phone was infected in June 2021 and September 2021 even though, at one point, she was imprisoned as she faced charges linked with her protest activity.
Another activist, Jatupat Boonpattararaksa also had his phone infected in June and July 2021.
In November 2021, Apple, the manufacturer of the iPhone, took the unprecedented step of publicly informing selected users in Thailand that their phones were being monitored with the sophisticated spyware.
Report does not conclusively show the involvement of government security agencies in the operation
It is important to note that the report published on Monday does not conclusively prove that the Thai government or its agencies were involved in the spyware exploits but suggests that ‘it is reasonable to conclude that the discovery of Pegasus spyware indicates the presence of a government operator’ because of repeated statements from the software owner, the NSO Group in Israel, that it only sells and allows its technology to be operated by governments and their associated agencies.
It should be noted that the Pegasus software system has also been known to be used by western democracies such as Canada itself, the United States and Switzerland.
At the same time, in the murky world of cyber espionage, it is often difficult to track who is responsible for such activities with both China and Russia being well known for utilising criminal elements and hackers as part of online espionage activities which are among the world’s most powerful.
Protest movement in Thailand however did appear to be targeted by the campaign using the spy software, such activity being legal under the kingdom’s laws
On Monday, however, the University of Toronto-based cyber research centre especially noted that those involved in the protest activities appeared to be the target of the spyware campaign and that the people surveilled were of ‘intense interest’ to authorities in the kingdom.
It also said that there was ‘longstanding evidence showing Pegasus’ presence in Thailand, indicating that the government would likely have had access to Pegasus during the period in question.’
In addition, Thailand’s National Intelligence Act of 2019, one of the last pieces of legislation passed by the National Legislative Assembly, the legislative arm of the National Council for Peace and Order or the military junta that ruled Thailand from 2014 until the democratically elected government took power on July 19th 2019, under Sections 5 and 6, allows for the use of electronic means by intelligence agencies to obtain information where other appropriate bodies or persons have not voluntarily supplied that information.
The law specifies that acts carried out in the line of duty in this regard and in good faith in the interest of national security or public safety were to be considered legitimate.
‘WeVo’ Guard, linked with violent attacks on police in Bangkok during protests, targeted by the campaign
During police operations in Bangkok against the increasingly violent protests in March 2021 police arrested the leader of the ‘WeVo guard’ Mr Piyarat Chongthep who was identified by this week’s report as being one of the targets of those behind the use of the spyware.
Four individuals linked with the We Volunteer (WeVo) guard including its leader Mr Piyarat were among the 30 people listed on Monday in the comprehensive report with the final two infections entering smartphones in August and September 2021 just two months before the spying operation ceased.
The group had been actively involved in extremely violent attacks on police units in the city using small explosive devices and other projectiles in the weeks before a police operation which smashed the group and brought an end to such attacks and a relative lull in violence at the gatherings.
Up to 40 individuals were arrested in the successful police crackdown led by the Metropolitan Police Bureau in Bangkok.
International human rights groups in Thailand have long campaigned against sporadic efforts by authorities to control or rein in free speech
Human rights groups and those associated with this week’s report have long targeted efforts by the Thai government to rein in free speech and to control online content including a long-held junta-era proposal for a single channel internet gateway for Thailand such as that being developed in Cambodia which follows the model of Chinese state authoritarianism and more effective control of internet content.
This week, in Indonesia, a July 20th deadline loomed for internet firms including giant operators such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to register and accept the government’s new law allowing it to order the speedy removal of online content or face being blocked or a blackout in the country.
Similar standoffs have also developed in Thailand between the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society and Facebook in recent years without a blackout but with the threat of criminal actions against the social media giant.
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However, the government of Prayut Chan ocha, including the prime minister himself, have long pointed to the reluctance of the country to use the powers currently at its disposal to suppress free speech.
There is some substance to this claim.
Thailand’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index rose dramatically in 2022 but its overall score fell
The latest Press Freedom Index published annually by Reporters Without Borders saw Thailand moving up from 2021’s rank of 137th in the world to 115th in 2022 with the kingdom leading the way in Southeast Asia.
However, the kingdoms’ score fell from 54.78 to 50.15 with its rise in the rankings due to a global deterioration in conditions for the free press with more countries in the world moving increasingly towards authoritarianism.
In recent weeks, the Thai government has signed a communiqué with the United States in which it committed itself to advance democratic standards and ideas not only in Thailand but on a regional basis.
Communiqué between the United States and Bangkok commits both countries to advance democratic principles and ideals emphasising human rights
The communiqué, issued jointly by the United States and Thailand at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok spoke of a ‘collective commitment to build resilient inclusive democracy and advance human rights’.
Last week, the new Biden administration nominee for the post of US Ambassador to Thailand, Robert F Godec, told his confirmation hearing before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the pursuit of human rights would be the theme of his diplomatic mission to Bangkok.
‘We have seen some progress but there is a lot more that remains to be done and I would commit, if confirmed, to do everything possible to make progress. It is good to see high-level engagement, but there is a lot to be done,’ Mr Godec told Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland as he spoke of the assistance provided by the United States to Thailand in efforts to improve the fight against forced labour and human trafficking.
However, Mr Godec particularly emphasised the need to improve freedom of expression in Thailand as crucial to fostering a stronger democratic environment.
‘That said, freedom of expression is critical. I would emphasise both publicly and privately the importance of allowing people to freely express their ideas without the threat of arrest,’ he said. ‘I would certainly, as I have done in my previous posts in Tunisia and Kenya, make every effort to protect freedom of expression.’