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Digital warfare: Myanmar’s cyber crackdown

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Police stand by as protesters take part in a demonstration demanding the release of detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Thursday. AFP

Digital warfare: Myanmar’s cyber crackdown

Myanmar’s military has imposed repeated internet blackouts, blocked some social media sites and drafted a cybersecurity bill as it attempts to grind down resistance to its takeover.

These moves by the new junta have deepened worries that internet-hungry Myanmar will no longer have access to real-time information, be largely cut off from the outside world and face draconian punishments for some online posts.

What has happened since the coup?

The military has so far ordered five temporary internet shutdowns, starting on February 1 – the day of the putsch – when civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained.

In recent days, communications have been throttled on three consecutive nights for a period of eight hours between 1am and 9am.

Monitoring group NetBlocks said internet connectivity during these outages dropped at times to 15 per cent of normal levels.

Also blocked are social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where an online campaign to oppose the coup gained steam.

The blackouts bring back memories of pre-internet days under the previous junta regime for Myo Naing, 46.

The car rental salesman said: “People had to gather on the street and share the information.”

Myanmar did not have easily available internet until about 2013, when a state monopoly on telecommunications ended and international companies began offering affordable SIM cards.

Why the internet shutdowns?

That is unclear.

One possible explanation is that the regime is using the time to analyse data to track down targets for arrest, said Australian cybersecurity expert Damien Manuel from Deakin University.

But Matt Warren of Melbourne’s RMIT University said the regime could be creating a state-monitored firewall to control information flows, similar to those in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China and Vietnam.

Whatever the reason, the military’s internet shutdowns could be characterised as “ad hoc”.

Warren said: “They’re reacting to the situation. They didn’t have a plan to control the internet as soon as the [coup] happened.”

Another possible explanation for the timing of the outages is that the junta wants to keep businesses up and running throughout the day.

Is it working?

The shutdowns have not deterred protesters from taking to the streets, but they have been successful at striking fear into people.

Yangon resident Win Tun, 44, said: “They can do anything they want [during the shutdown] so we have to protect our streets.”

But in terms of getting online, Myanmar netizens have managed to skirt the social media blocks by using virtual private networks (VPNs).

Top10VPN, a Britain-based digital security advocacy group, reported a 7,200-per-cent increase in local demand for VPNs in the immediate aftermath of Facebook being banned on February 4.

Top10VPN’s Samuel Woodhams said: “As VPNs provide a means for citizens to bypass restrictions, authorities will often restrict them to ensure their internet shutdowns are effective.”

He added that there had been reports of VPN services being blocked in Myanmar, although it was unclear exactly how many had been affected.

“It shows the determination of the government to restrict citizens’ access to information and freedom of expression,” Woodhams said.

Some internet users in Myanmar have also circumvented the blackouts with foreign SIM cards.

What about new laws?

The military junta has proposed a draconian new law that gives it sweeping powers to block websites, order internet shutdowns and request personal user data “for the sake of national security”.

Norway-based Telenor ASA – which in recent weeks has had to comply with temporary internet shutdowns at the regime’s direction – expressed alarm over the draft law’s “broad scope”.

Myanmar-based civil society groups, private companies and even a manufacturing and industrial association have denounced the bill.

Their concerns range from human rights to worries that it could stifle a business-friendly environment.

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