This article was written with inputs from advocates working on digital rights issues that Cambodia is facing.
According to the DataReportal 2023 report, Cambodia has 11.37 million internet users at the beginning of 2023, with an internet penetration rate of 67.5% of the total population. This reflects how more people have adapted to a digital world and used the internet to make their lives easier and more convenient. The acceleration of digitalisation, however, has also increased the country’s digital safety concerns.
According to Cambodia’s Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, only 30% of Cambodians have basic knowledge of digital literacy and can search for and exchange information on the Internet. This lack of digital literacy skills may prevent individuals from taking advantage of new technologies.
Understanding the various threats that lurk online is critical, especially among the most vulnerable groups such as journalists, activists, and civil society organisations (CSOs) who may be targeted due to the nature of their work. Research conducted by EngageMedia on Digital Safety and Internet Freedom in South and Southeast Asia shows that in the context of Cambodia, the most concerning forms of digital attacks were account takeover, online impersonation, surveillance, online harassment, and hate speech, among others.
Amid these dangers, however, over 60% of the respondents said they have a low capacity to protect themselves against these digital threats. Most respondents also indicated that they have a medium level of digital safety skills.
Threats to digital safety in Cambodia
In recent years, reports of Cambodia’s online scam operations have made headlines. Thousands of workers from various countries have been lured and trafficked into working in online scam centres in Cambodia, where they are forced to look for unsuspecting victims online and trick them into investing in online scams. Both foreigners and locals are targeted by such cybercrime activities.
One of the most common forms of cybercrime is phishing. In this kind of attack, the malicious actor poses as a trusted or known person to trick potential victims into giving out sensitive information, such as login details, credit card information, and bank accounts. Typically conducted via sending links through chat apps, email, and SMS, successful phishing attacks may result in account compromise, unauthorised access to an organisation’s networks and computers, and the introduction of malware.
Another key concern is online impersonation, where a malicious actor poses as someone else for financial gain or to harass and intimidate a particular victim. In some cases, these attackers impersonate individuals who have power and popularity in specific fields to gain political benefits.
Exercising free speech online is often hampered by hate speech and online harassment, especially targeted towards women, people belonging to the LGBTQI+ community, and activists. They typically face unsolicited sexual messages, requests to join dodgy chat rooms, and invites to inappropriate Facebook or Telegram groups. According to a 2021 report by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), 38% of people surveyed reported having experienced online harassment. A sizable number of women reported receiving unwanted messages, while activists report being disproportionately targeted by authorities and subjected to questioning for exercising their right to free speech online.
Keeping safe online
The findings of the research conducted by EngageMedia show that in Cambodia, most people are primarily vulnerable to digital threats and attacks due to a variety of reasons, such as a lack of understanding and critical thinking when consuming social media, poor digital literacy skills, and lack of sufficient education on habits and behaviours surrounding social media.
Understanding and implementing digital hygiene practices is critical as a first step to enhancing digital security. There are plenty of resources available online, such as these articles on malware and phishing that explain how these attacks work and how to defend against them. EngageMedia also has a Digital Hygiene 101 resource localised in various languages that provide a good starting point for increasing digital security. The Digital Security Community Directory is a compilation of digital security and safety resources available in multiple languages.
Aside from individual actions, multi-stakeholder cooperation is also important. Activists and CSOs can collaborate with academe and technology experts to research digital safety threats and hold workshops and training for enhancing digital security. The Cambodia Digital Rights Working Group is also collaborating with partners from the regional and international community to provide inputs on draft laws proposed by the government. Doing so would open dialogues on key digital rights and digital safety issues to ensure that policies do not restrict or infringe on people’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression.