A digital firewall in Myanmar built with guns and wire cutters

A digital firewall in Myanmar built with guns and wire cutters

2021-02-23 12:41:40

The Myanmar soldiers descended before sunrise on Feb. 1 with guns and wire cutters. At gunpoint, they ordered technicians at telecom operators to switch off the internet. For the record, the soldiers cut wires without knowing what they cut, according to an eyewitness and a person briefed on the events.

The data center raids on Yangon and other cities in Myanmar were part of a coordinated attack in which the military seized power, imprisoned the country's elected leaders, and took most internet users offline.

Since the coup, the military has repeatedly shut down the internet and cut access to major social media sites, isolating a country that only had a link with the outside world in recent years. The military regime has also introduced legislation that criminalizes the mildest opinions expressed online.

Until now, the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is called, relied on rougher forms of control to limit the flow of information. But the military appears to be serious about setting up a digital fence to more aggressively filter what people see and do online. The development of such a system could take years and, according to experts, would likely require outside help from Beijing or Moscow.

Such a comprehensive firewall can also come at a high price: Internet outages since the coup have paralyzed a struggling economy. Longer interruptions will hurt local business interests and the confidence of foreign investors, as well as the military's enormous business interests.

"The military is afraid of people's online activities, so they tried to block and shut down the Internet," said Ko Zaw Thurein Tun, a chairman of a local branch of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association. "But now international banking has stopped and the country's economy is in decline. It's like their urine is watering their own faces."

If Myanmar's digital controls become permanent, they would contribute to the global walls that increasingly divide what was meant to be an open, borderless Internet. The blockades would also provide new evidence that more countries are looking for China's authoritarian model to tame the internet. Two weeks after the coup Cambodia, which is under China's economic power, has also unveiled its own extensive internet checks.

Even policymakers in the United States and Europe set their own rules, albeit much less strict. Technologists fear that such moves could eventually break the Internet and effectively undermine the online networks that connect the world.

The people of Myanmar may have gotten online later than most, but their enthusiasm for the Internet has fueled the zeal of the converts. Communications on Facebook and Twitter, along with secure messaging apps, have united millions of people in their opposition to the coup.

Daily street protests against the military have gained momentum in recent days, despite fears of bloody repression. Protesters have gathered at China's diplomatic missions in Myanmar and accused Beijing of exporting the tools of authoritarianism to its smaller neighbor.

Huawei and ZTE, two major Chinese companies, built much of Myanmar's telecommunications network, especially when Western financial sanctions made it difficult for other foreign companies to operate in the country.

The two foreign-owned telecom operators, Telenor and Ooredo, have met numerous demands from the military, including instructions to shut down the internet every night for the past week and block specific websites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

"The cybersecurity law is just a law to arrest people who are online," said Ma Htaike Htaike Aung, the executive director of MIDO, a civil society group that monitors technology in Myanmar. "If it continues, the digital economy in our country will have disappeared."

When the bill was sent to foreign telecom companies for comment, representatives of the companies were told by the authorities that rejecting the law was not an option, said two people aware of the talks.

Those people and others who were aware of the ongoing efforts to tackle the internet in Myanmar spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivities of the new regime.

The draft cybersecurity law follows years of effort in the country to build surveillance capabilities, often following directions from China. Last year, Telenor, a Norwegian company, expressed concern about a government effort to register the identities of individuals who purchase mobile phone services, allowing authorities to associate names with telephone numbers.

The Myanmar campaign has so far been unsuccessful, although it bears similarities with China's real name registration policy, which has become a cornerstone of Beijing's surveillance state. The program reflected Myanmar's ambitions, but also how far it is to achieve something close to what China has done.

In recent years, Huawei surveillance cameras have been created to track cars and people, including in the country's largest cities and in the underpopulated capital Naypyidaw. A top cybersecurity official in Myanmar recently showed photos of such road monitoring technology on his personal Facebook page.

A Huawei spokesperson declined to comment on the systems.

For now, even as anti-Chinese protests grow over fears of an influx of high-tech equipment, the Tatmadaw has ordered telecom companies to use less sophisticated methods to impede Internet access. The preferred method is to unlink website addresses from the set of numbers it takes a computer to look up specific sites, a practice akin to listing the wrong number under a person's name in a phone book.

Smarter internet users bypass the blockages with virtual private networks or V.P.N.s. But over the past week, access to some popular free V.P.N. & # 39; s in Myanmar has been blocked. And paid services, which are more difficult to block, are unaffordable for most people in the country, who also don't have the international credit cards needed to buy them.

Yet Myanmar has developed a surprisingly robust technical command for one of Asia's poorest countries. Over the past decade, thousands of military officers have studied in Russia, where they were trained in the latest information technology, according to educational data from Myanmar and Russia.

In 2018, the Department of Transportation and Telecommunications, then under a hybrid civil-military government, raised $ 4.5 million from an emergency fund to use for a social media monitoring team that "is to prevent foreign sources from interfering with and causing unrest in Myanmar."

Thousands of cyber soldiers are operating under military command, Myanmar technical experts said. Every morning, after the nightly internet stops, more websites and V.P.N. & # 39; s are blocked, showing the soldiers' zeal.

"We see an army that has been using analogous methods for decades, but also trying to embrace new technology," said Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asian researcher at the Australian National University. "Although it is being applied in a haphazard way for now, they are establishing a system to clean up anyone who posts anything that is even slightly threatening to the regime."

Mr. Zaw Thurein Tun, of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association, said he was browsing the internet at home shortly after the coup when a group of men arrived to arrest him. Other digital activists had already been detained across the country. He ran.

He is now in hiding, but is involved in a civil disobedience campaign against the military. Mr. Zaw Thurein Tun said he was concerned that the Tatmadaw brick by digital brick is assembling its own firewall.

& # 39; Then we will all be in complete darkness again, & # 39; he said.


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