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Anonymous Hacktivists Join Cyberwar Against Thai Junta's Effort to Control the Internet

Hackers brought down Thailand's state-run telecom site over the government's attempt to establish a single internet gateway that would allow it to monitor, control, and erase websites.

by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn
Oct 23 2015, 9:45pm

Photo by Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA

The international hacker collective Anonymous has jumped into the battle over the Thai government's attempts to consolidate and monitor all of the country's internet use through a single gateway.

On Thursday evening, the website for CAT Telecom, the state-run telecommunications company tasked with implementing the gateway, went offline for several hours. CAT currently manages Thailand's international gateways and was Anonymous's primary target.

Earlier that day, the group announced the launch of #OpSingleGateway, saying in a statement that the government's restriction of human rights and free speech was "going too far."

"The land of smile [sic] will soon be similar to China, North Korea or any tyranic [sic] country providing intrusive electronic systems to spy and prosecute their own citizens having different ways of thinking," wrote the group. "We will not only fight against the single gateway project but will expose your incompetence to the world, where depravity and personal interests prevail."

A Twitter account, @F5CyberArmy, tweeted images saying that thousands of CAT Telecom customer logins and passwords had been compromised.  

The single internet gateway has been dubbed the Great Firewall of Thailand for the degree to which it allows the government to monitor, control, and shut down websites. The plan was proposed as early as May 2014, soon after the military government took power in a coup, but it gained widespread attention last month after a Thai developer posted a tweet linking to a cabinet resolution detailing the plan.

The resolution outlines plans for a gateway that would "control websites that are inappropriate and the flow of information from foreign countries." The resolution also noted that the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology should look at existing laws and determine whether new ones needed to be passed to complete the project. If so, they could be formulated under the order of the prime minister, former army chief Prayut Chan-ocha.

"It seems very clear that the gateway is a mechanism for control," said Madeline Earp, a research analyst for Freedom House, a nonprofit that regularly releases reports on internet and press freedom around the world. In its 2014 report on internet, the organization rated Thailand as "not free."

"Thailand already has an environment of prosecution and surveillance," Earp added. "The gateway is a sign that the government is trying to consolidate the control they already have and further it with more sophisticated technology."

Thailand's internet use is already heavily monitored. Under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, people convicted of using the internet inappropriately can be sentenced to prison for up to five years. In August, two people were sentenced to 28 and 30 years in prison under Thailand's controversial lèse majesté laws for posting messages on Facebook considered insulting to the monarchy.

Related: You'll Get a Massive Prison Sentence If You 'Insult' Thailand's Monarchy on Facebook

Arthit Suriyawongkul, a member of the cyber-freedom group Thai Netizen Network, said that the government's effort to monitor the internet is not new, citing earlier plans by the government to create its own social media networks for the sake of improving surveillance. He is most concerned about the military junta using the gateway as a "single point of control" to shut down websites. Under current law, the government must make a request to the courts before they can take down a site. The new gateway would bypass this provision. 

"We would immediately lose our checks and balances," said Suriyawongkul. "We would have no record of which sites the government took down and when, and you would never know who was responsible."

News site TelecomAsia wrote that it recently received documents suggesting that the Thai government had made plans to monitor the internet, including key social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, since 2006. The documents suggest that a single internet gateway "has been a priority and pushed by the highest levels of the army for years," according to the report. 

Following public outcry against the plan, the government has continually flip-flopped on whether it will continue to pursue the gateway.

Last Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said the government would halt the plan, according to a Reuters report. But earlier this week, CAT Telecom said it would move forward. Though the government has consistently denied that the attacks have caused any damage, the Royal Thai Army announced earlier this week that it would create a new "cyber warfare unit" to tackle cyber crimes. Prime Minister Prayut has called for tightened cybersecurity in light of the attacks. 

The CAT Telecom homepage currently features a disclaimer that says its website and the privacy of its users was not compromised by cyber attacks: "As for the news of a Single Internet Gateway that has caused these misunderstandings, the policy does not exist, and we are confident that there will be no suppression of citizens' rights."

An activist group called Citizens Against a Single Gateway has pledged to continue to fight the government's project.

"We have continually demanded that the government end the single gateway plan, but all they did was go forward with it," a representative told VICE News. "It makes us feel that the government lacks any sincerity and does not listen to the people." 

"These operations will continue until the government has agreed to end the single gateway project and we have regained our internet freedom," the group said in a statement.

Follow Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn on Twitter: @yukvon