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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Ooredoo in Myanmar targeted by military spyware ahead of coup: report

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Reports state Myanmar’s military killed up to 805 people and detained at least 4,146 people since the anti-coup protests erupted in February.

Myanmar’s military has reportedly ordered locally operating telecom companies and internet service providers to install intercept spyware that would allow it to surveil citizens, sources told Reuters.

The order was enforced months ahead of the February 1st military coup in Myanmar and affected several major companies including Qatar’s largest service provider Ooredoo which operates in the Asian country.

The spyware enables the military to eavesdrop on calls, access text messages, monitor internet usage, and track locations of users without the assistance of the companies.

Norway’s Telenor, large state-backed operator MPT, and Mytel, a venture between Myanmar’s army and the Vietnamese defence ministry’s Viettel.

Both Mytel and MPT are now under full control of the military government.

At the start of the coup, the military raided data centres and cut internet cables while holding at gunpoint employees who resisted to comply.

Sources revealed that the military later ordered firms to block phone numbers belonging to activists, opponents and human rights lawyers, obligating operators to share customer lists with authorities.

Later in March, a month after the military coup took place, the army had completely cut access to mobile data as part of the internet blackout. Telenor and Ooredoo executives protested the army’s orders and were told to stay silent or else face losing their licenses.

In a comment made shortly after the coup, Ooredoo said it “regretfully complied” with orders to restrict mobile and wireless broadband in Myanmar.

“Firms have to obey the orders,” one industry source said. “Everyone knows that if you don’t, they can just come in with guns and cut the wires. That’s even more effective than any intercept.”

Doha News reached out to Ooredoo and the Government Communications Office [GCO] for comments but has yet to receive a response. The spyware does not impact Ooredoo customers out of Myanmar.

Three sources at firms with knowledge of the matter said not every telecom firm and internet service provider complied with the military’s orders to install the intercept spyware, which monitors SIM cards and redirects calls to other numbers without a dial tone.

“We have to change SIM cards all the time,” said a senior civil servant who is working with politicians to form a parallel government.

Read also: Spyware and censorship: How governments control what you see online

Dozens of Reuters interviews with sources with knowledge of the spyware revealed that installation of the programme appears to be part of the army’s plot to control the internet and monitor political opponents while cracking down on future dissent.

One industry executive also revealed that those who delivered the orders to the civilian ministry of transport and communications were former military officials.

“They presented it as coming from the civilian government, but we knew the army would have control and were told you could not refuse,” the executive told Reuters, adding that officials from the military-controlled ministry of home affairs were involved in the meetings.

The news agency tried contacting representatives for the military government and representatives for politicians attempting to form a new civilian government, but failed to receive a response.

“The military wants to control the internet so it will be a safe zone but only for them,” said one industry executive. “We’ve gone back five years in time.”

Furthermore, budget documents by the overran government led by Aung San Suu Kyi detailed a planned $4 million-worth purchase of intercept spyware products and parts to aid its data extraction and phone hacking technology.

However, Reuters was unable to verify the non-military individuals’ involvement in the army’s order to install the spyware.

Amnesty International’s Security Lab and three tech experts said that the intercept products outlined in the government budget documents would enable the bulk collection of phone metadata on who users call, when they call and duration of their calls, in addition to targeted content interception.

Prior to the military coup, Myanmar implemented what is known as “lawful intercepts” which, unlike in democratic countries, are unlawfully used by law enforcement agencies to monitor citizens.

Surveillance was already present in the country after the introduction of a social media monitoring system in 2018, under the pretext of preventing foreign influence.

Military coup

The coup began with the detainment of Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior figures from the National League for Democracy [NLD] during an early morning raid, followed by the announcement of a year-long state of emergency by the military.

The military attempted to justify the arrests saying it was in response to election fraud, granting power to army chief Min Aung Hlaing and replacing 24 ministers and deputies with 11 new members.

Since then, anti-coup protests have erupted across the country with those opposing the military rule facing raids, censorship and arrests.

As of now, more than 800 people have been killed by the military since the coup took place with over 4,100 people being detained by the army.

Out of those arrested, at least 92 were convicted per a report released by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners on Tuesday.


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