A Digital Firewall in Myanmar, Built with Guns and Wire Cutters

On 1 February, Myanmar troops landed before dawn carrying rifles and wire cutters. At gunpoint, he ordered telecom operators to shut down the Internet. According to eyewitnesses, for good measure, the soldiers cut the wires without knowing anything.

The data center raids in Yangon and other cities in Myanmar were part of a coordinated strike in which the military seized power, shutting down the country’s elected leaders and taking most of its Internet users offline.

Since then CoupThe military repeatedly shut down the Internet and cut off access to major social media sites, tearing apart a country that had only been connected to the outside world over the years. The military regime has also enacted legislation that can criminalize the mild views expressed online.

Until now, Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army, has relied on serious forms of control to restrict the flow of information. But the military seems serious about digital fencing to filter more aggressively what people see and do online. According to experts, developing such a system can take years and will require external help from Beijing or Moscow.

Such a comprehensive firewall can also have a heavy cost: the coup has paralyzed the struggling economy. Prolonged disruption will hurt local business interests and the trust of foreign investors, as well as the military’s vast business interests.

“The military is afraid of people’s online activities, so they tried to block and shut down the Internet,” said Cove Zaw Thurin Tun, president of a local chapter of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association. “But now international bank transactions have stopped, and the country’s economy is declining. It is as if their urine is watering their face. “

If Myanmar’s digital controls become permanent, they will add to the global walls that are becoming increasingly divided into what should have been an open, frontier Internet. The bloc will also present fresh evidence that more countries are exploring China’s authoritarian model so that it can use the Internet. Two weeks after the coup, Cambodia, Which is under China’s economic stranglehold, also unveiled its own extensive Internet controls.

Even policy controllers in the United States and Europe are setting their own rules, although these are far less serious. Technologists worry that such moves may eventually break the Internet, effectively weakening the online networks that bind the world together.

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

Despite fears of a bloody conflict, daily street protests against the military have gathered strength in recent times. Beijing has attacked China’s diplomatic missions in Myanmar, accusing Beijing of exporting tools of authoritarianism to its younger neighbor.

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

Telenor and Ooredo, Myanmar’s two foreign-owned telecom operators, have complied with several demands from the military, including instructions to cut the Internet each night for the past week and block specific websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All the time, Military According to two people with knowledge of the staff of the department, the officers of its Signal Corps have been placed in charge of the Posts and Telecommunications Department.

A 36-page draft Cyber ​​security law The coup was distributed to telecoms and Internet service providers in the week following stringent regulations that would give the military broad rights to block websites and reduce accessibility to harass users. The legislation would also allow the government to have wider access to users’ data, which Internet providers must store for three years.

“The cybercity law is just a law to arrest people online,” said Ma Hatike Hikike Aung, executive director of MIDO, a civil society tracking technology in Myanmar. “If it passes, the digital economy will move into our country.”

When a draft of the law was sent to foreign telecoms for comment, representatives of the officials told the officials that, according to two people with knowledge of the negotiations, rejection of the law was not an option.

Those people and others were aware of ongoing efforts to crack the Internet in Myanmar and spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the new regime.

The draft cyber security law follows a long-term effort to build surveillance capabilities within the country, often indicated by China. Last year, Norway-owned company Telenor raised concerns about a government push to enter the identities of individuals purchasing cellphone services, which would allow authorities to link names to phone numbers.

Thus the campaign in Myanmar has so far been unsuccessful, although it is similar to China’s real-name registration policies, which have become the keystone of Beijing’s surveillance state. The program mirrored Myanmar’s ambitions, but also how far China has come close to what it has done.

In recent years, Huawei surveillance cameras have been created to track cars and people and have also moved to the country’s largest cities and to the short-term capital, Napidaw. A top cyber security official in Myanmar recently showed pictures of such road surveillance technology on his personal Facebook page.

A spokesman for Huawei declined to comment about the system.

For now, even as anti-Chinese demonstrations grow out of fear of influx of high-tech devices, Tatmadaw has ordered telecommunications companies to use less sophisticated methods to disrupt Internet access. The method of choice is to separate the website addresses that computers need to view specific sites, a practice for listing the wrong number under a person’s name in a phone book.

Savvier Internet users skirt the block with a virtual private network or VPN but over the past week, access to some popular free VPNs in Myanmar has been disrupted. And paid services, which are difficult to block, are unethical for most people in the country who lack the international credit card required to buy them.

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

In 2018, the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications, which was then under a hybrid civil-military government, took an amount of $ 4.5 million from the Emergency Fund to use for emergencies. Social media monitoring team “Myanmar aims to stop unrest and provoking foreign sources.”

Technical experts in Myanmar said thousands of cyber soldiers work under military command. Every morning, after the nighttime internet is shut down, more websites and VPNs get blocked, reflecting the soldiers’ laboriousness.

“We see an army that has been using analog methods for decades but is trying to adopt new technology,” said researcher Hunter Marston of South East Asia at the Australian National University. “While this has been implemented randomly for now, they are establishing a system to sweep anyone who posts anything, even threatening the regime.”

Mr Zaw Thurin Tun of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association said that he was browsing the Internet soon after the coup, when a group of men arrived to arrest him. Other digital activists were already detained nationwide. He ran.

He is now in hiding but is helping direct a civil disobedience campaign against the military. Mr Zaw Thurin Tun said he is concerned that Tatmadov is assembling his own firewall with brick, digital brick.

“Then we’ll all be in complete darkness again,” he said.

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