LINE denies Thai junta’s claim it is monitoring popular chat app

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 23, 2014 Claims by the Thai military junta that it is monitoring the popular chat app LINE for content deemed insulting towards the monarchy have been refuted by South Korea-based parent company Naver.

The Thai Minister for Information and Communication Technology (MICT) Pornchai Rujiprap stated on Monday that the authorities can "monitor all the nearly 40 million LINE messages sent by people in Thailand each day." LINE has at least 24 million registered users in Thailand, according to the company's latest figures in August - while Pornchai estimated the number to be at 33 million users, based on his own claims.

He continued:

"We can see what type of messages are being forwarded," Pornchai told reporters, "We focus especially on those that are libelous, anti-monarchy, or threatening national security." (...)

"The suspects cannot claim that they were not aware of the consequences of their actions, because the law regards them as conspirators in the crimes," Pornchai said, "Therefore, if you receive [anti-monarchy] messages, you should not forward them."

The Minister also vowed to seek IP addresses and other information about anti-monarchy websites from foreign companies that host their servers, though he admitted that the process could take a long time.

"It could take a long while because there needs to be a negotiation. Some countries have cultures that are different to Thai," Pornchai explained.

"ICT Pledges To Sniff Out Anti-Monarchy Chat Messages", Khaosod English, December 23, 2014

The South Korean parent company of LINE has been quick to dismiss the junta's claims:

“No monitoring by the Thailand government has been conducted,” Nam Ji Woong, a spokesman for South Korea-based Naver Corp., which owns Line Corp., said by e-mail today. “Line considers consumers’ privacy as a top priority.”

"Line Application Denies Reports Thailand Is Monitoring Messages", Bloomberg News, December 23, 2014

The draconian lèse majesté law criminalizes perceived criticism of Thailand's monarchy and carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail. Charges based on this law, where every citizen can file a complaint against anyone and police are obliged to investigate every one of them, have seen a rampant rise in recent years and even more so since the military coup of May 22, 2014. According to the Thai legal watchdog ilaw at least 22 people have been arrested on lèse majesté charges since the coup and also on the equally draconian yet vague worded Computer Crimes Act, which also penalizes digital content deemed a threat to national security.

The military junta - more than ever the self-proclaimed protector of the Thai monarchy and intolerant of dissent and criticism - has also imposed widespread media censorship and set up its own media watchdogs. Not only has the junta reactivated the 'cyber-scout' program, which recruits volunteer students to monitor the Internet, it even considered launching its own national social network, and it has also reportedly implemented the technical capabilities for widespread online surveillance.

This is not the first time that LINE and its Thai users have been targeted by Thai authorities. Last year, an overzealous Police Maj.-Gen. Pisit Pao-in of the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) of the Royal Thai Police has also sought access to user information and chat logs of the messaging app and was even considering criminalizing Facebook users for 'liking' what he thinks is "unlawful" content. Ultimately he was unsuccessful - so much so that even the hawkish then-ICT minister Anudith Nakorn-thap chided him for his overeagerness.

The biggest irony of the junta's boisterous claims that it is able to monitor LINE (that is unless the parent company is cooperating after all or the junta has found another way) is that it was made at the same event when the military junta was presenting series of LINE 'stickers' representing the junta's proclaimed and much touted "12 core values" (more on that in a future Siam Voices post), aimed at instilling what they think makes a "good Thai" like showing respect to superiors, resisting the temptation of “religious sins”, upholding “Thai customs and traditions”, and sacrificing oneself for the good of the country.

In their continuous, widespread media campaign - including commissioning propaganda short movies (one of which gained infamy for a brief, but bizarre Hitler scene) - the military government hopes (after it has spend 7 million baht or almost $213,000 on them) that LINE users will promote these "12 core values" by sending the stickers to each other - if only the junta can find a way to make sure that actually happens...

UPDATE [Dec 24]: ICT Minister Pornchai Rujiprapa has practically backtracked his boisterous claims:

He said it was merely a misunderstanding that the MICT can monitor ‘Line’ and that it is much easier to find evidences lese majeste and others cases via Facebook and websites which the IP address can be tracked. If he ministry need information on Line, it will have to cooperate with its headquarter.

“I merely said don’t send the [lese majeste] messages via Line because the police can make arrests when people file complaints with the messages as evidences. Not that the MICT was monitoring the chat traffic on Line. And warn people to be careful not to share the [lese majeste] messages because it is illegal according to 2007 Computer Crime Act.” Prachatai quoted Pornchai as saying.

"Thai authorities say no surveillance on popular chat app", Prachatai English, December 24, 2014

The Thai office of LINE has also emphasized that there's no surveillance and the Thai authorities need a court order to do so.

And in somewhat related news and ironic timing, LINE Thailand has a job opening for a "Content Editor and Monitoring"...