Editor's Note: This article was written by Darika Bamrungchok, director of the Digital Rights department (Mekong program) at EngageMedia, based in Bangkok. This is part of our series on digital identification systems and is produced in association with The Engine Room. Visit the Digital ID microsite to read the full research report on this global trend, and case studies from five nations that have used digital identification systems, including Thailand.
Many countries around the world have been modernizing their national identification systems to incorporate the use of biometric information to verify people's identity and provide public services. Thailand is not the exception.
Thailand's Smart Identification Card, which includes the use of a microchip, was first instituted in 2005. However, the use of biometrics in the national identification document did not materialize until 2019, when the National Assembly Legislative passed the digital identification law. Currently, there is a national digital identification company that is inspecting the implementation of digital identification documents, but progress is slow.
Before the programmed digital identification system is rolled out nationally, stakeholders, including the Government, the private sector and civil society, must step back and consider the risks it poses and the possibility of inappropriate use of the biometric information in Thailand, particularly given the country's troubled record of collecting and using that data in the far south region as part of its counterinsurgency policies.
After the 2014 coup, the political situation in Thailand deteriorated, ending with a flawed electoral process in 2019. Additionally, since 2014, the government has used various measures to repress the opposition and other dissident voices, and to suppress the criticism of people who consider as a political threat, which generated an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. All of this raises questions regarding the government's transparency in implementing the digital identification system, and also concerns about security and privacy guarantees to prevent inappropriate use of biometric information.
“Trust in Thai authorities is weakening,” said a 27-year-old activist who advocates for democracy and who asked not to reveal her name in an interview via phone call with Global Voices (GV). And added:
So, when any new digital policies are introduced, we have to remind ourselves that those technologies will be implemented under a military mindset. It can create a range of risks violating people’s privacy, freedom, and political participation. The upcoming digital ID or mandatory biometric data system could be another tactic to monitor human rights defenders and critics who are simply against the government.
When they propose any new digital policy, we have to remember that those technologies will be implemented under a military mindset. It can generate a series of risks that violate the privacy, freedom and political participation of people. The impending digital ID card or mandatory biometric information system could be another tactic to monitor human rights defenders and critics who oppose the government.
Without explicit guarantees and good information management, the implications for privacy and human rights could be severe, particularly for vulnerable and minority groups. The Malay Muslim communities that inhabit the southernmost provinces of Thailand had to learn that bitter lesson in the most difficult way.
Mandatory biometric system is riddled with abuse
In Thailand, where Buddhism predominates, the majority of people living in the southern border provinces are Muslim. Over the past years, violence in these provinces has been intensifying, leaving more than 7,000 victims in the last 15 years. This region has a long and troubled history of state discrimination against local Malay Muslims, among which may be mentioned several draconian military measures imposed by the authorities disguised under special security laws.
During a public seminar called “Grab, Trample, Repeat, Change” held in October 2019, Romadon Panjor, editor of the Deep South Watch website, described the southern provinces as “test sites for the military forces.” According to Romadon:
They are merely areas for testing certain tools… From there, some methods have been replicated and applied countrywide.
These are simply items to test certain tools … From there, some methods were copied and applied nationwide.
Among the government's counter-insurgency methods, the most controversial was the forced collection of DNA samples from Malaysian Muslims.
According to sections 131 and 131/1 of the Thai Criminal Procedure Code, those who are arrested on criminal suspicion or who have been convicted of a crime must provide a DNA sample. In the far south of Thailand, however, security forces have consistently carried out raids to arbitrarily take DNA samples from Malaysian Muslims, most of whom have never committed any crime.
The Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF), a group that advocates for human rights, has been monitoring the human rights situation in the region since 2004, when the ethno-religious conflict reappeared between the Thai state and insurgent groups made up of Malay Muslims.
In 2012, the Thai government began collecting biometric information, including DNA samples from Malaysian Muslims in the region, to use as forensic evidence to identify those responsible for the violent acts. From January to September 2019, the foundation received at least 139 complaints from people who were forced to deliver DNA samples in the region.
Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, a CrCF human rights researcher, said in an interview with GV that:
this massive collection of personal biometric data raises serious concerns about violating people’s basic rights. The discriminatory nature of these measures could amount to racial profiling, which subjects Malay Muslims to disproportionate and unnecessary surveillance based on ethnic prejudice rather than objective signs of suspicion.
This massive collection of personal biometric information raises serious concerns about violation of people's basic rights. The discriminatory nature of these measures could amount to discrimination based on racial profiling, which in turn subjects Malaysian Muslims to disproportionate and unnecessary vigilance based on ethnic bias, rather than objective indications of suspicion.
Investigating the period from April 2019 to April 2020, Chanatip discovered that the practice of gathering biometric information promoted by the Thai State, along with other counter-insurgency measures, was often carried out at checkpoints or during raid operations in the homes, villages, dormitories and private religious schools of the southern border provinces, and also in the homes of people from the region who live in Bangkok, the capital of the country.
Random DNA collection in Malay Muslim communities grew into a more systematized structure alongside many other policies such as taking photos of their faces, their ID cards, and their car number plates by military officers. Currently, the government has launched a large-scale measure to collect the facial data of a wide-ranging group of people in the region. They also signaled an expansion of CCTV by integrating AI technologies in the region.
Taking random DNA samples in Malay Muslim communities became a more systematized structure along with many other policies, such as taking pictures of their faces, their identification documents, and the license plates of their vehicles made by Army officers. Currently, the Government has launched a large-scale project to collect facial information from a very diverse group of people in the region. He also noted an expansion of CCTV with the incorporation of artificial intelligence technologies in the region.
In April 2019, this practice even spread elsewhere as DNA sampling was incorporated into the annual mandatory military recruitment process in three districts in the southern border provinces and four districts in Songkla province. Chanatip's investigation also highlighted that between April 4 to 11, 2019, officers took DNA samples from at least 20,250 people who went through this process.
After concerns were raised about taking DNA samples during the military recruitment process, Colonel Chalat Sriwichien, deputy director of Special Operations in the city of Yala, contested reports that authorities were performing forced DNA tests. He added that DNA samples in the new national security database would help security authorities solve insurgency-related violent crimes.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also denied that the forced DNA tests constituted a violation of rights, and maintained that the “procedure is carried out on a voluntary basis.” He added that the southern border provinces were simply the first place where DNA samples were taken from Army recruits and that this practice would spread to other regions.
But the irony of the situation is that as authorities aggressively implement the collection of random DNA samples – targeting ordinary citizens in communities where Muslims predominate – there are thousands of stateless people across the country who cannot afford the verification test. DNA that they are asked to submit their citizenship application, particularly stateless people who do not have a birth certificate. According to research published in 2015, stateless people have to visit a clinic to perform the DNA test, which is worth 4,800 baht ($ 150).
There is no consent under an atmosphere of fear
According to Chanatip's research, under this atmosphere of fear, many in the southern provinces hand over DNA samples without receiving adequate information about the procedure. Authorities collect the samples with the aim of gathering forensic evidence to use in a trial or also to intimidate locals who are presumed to be affiliated with or sympathetic to the insurgents.
Chanatip interviewed the wives of suspected insurgents, who said they took their DNA samples during their home raids, although they are not genetically related to their husbands.
“It made us feel very bad. We were treated like criminals. Now we feel anxious, ”said the wife of a suspected insurgent in Patani.
CrCF mentions that despite feeling apprehensive or reluctant to hand over DNA samples, most people were unaware that they had the right to refuse to hand them over, as guaranteed in sections 131 and 131/1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. In some cases, security agents reportedly ordered people to sign a consent form after obtaining their sample. In other cases, people were not given the option of deciding whether or not to consent to a sample being taken. In no event was anyone provided with information regarding how and where this information is accessed, processed and stored.
No facial analysis, no phone service
In June 2019, the Government took a further step by ordering all mobile phone users in three southernmost provinces to register their SIM cards through a facial recognition system. Those who did not obey the order risked having their mobile phone service suspended.
An Army spokesperson indicated that SIM cards have been used to detonate bombs, so facial recognition could help identify those responsible for those attacks. Although the Government stated that it only planned to use the system to find suspects and persons of concern for questioning, this measure could negatively affect the lives of many innocent citizens, including the risk of making unfair arrests.
It remains to be seen how they will use or incorporate the facial information obtained by the Government through the mandatory registration of SIM cards into the current surveillance infrastructure.
Chanatip mentioned a concern from the locals:
Malay Muslims tend to express much more suspicion towards this policy and worry that these data would be abused in some way. A local political activist said to me that this measure would only intensify the locals ’district in the government and decrease the legitimacy of the ongoing peace process.
Malaysian Muslims tend to express much more suspicion of this policy and are concerned that they will abuse this information in some way. A local political activist told me that this measure would only intensify the distrust that the locals feel towards the government and would undermine the legitimacy of the ongoing peace process.
The controversial practice of forcing DNA samples from the Thai government and registering SIM cards with a facial recognition system in the southern border provinces is a reminder that there is a need to publicize their digital identification project. As the Government urges the implementation of a digital identification system throughout the country, there is concern that these same draconian measures could be applied in other regions and with ethnic groups throughout the country. If the system is not transparent, and if it does not provide citizens with informed consent before collecting their information and they ignore what happens to their personal information, including who has access, how it is collected and stored, people could lose their right to Privacy.
Without these measures, many “will continue to feel that the State is subjecting them to unfair racial profiling and intense vigilance,” Chanatip warned.