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Digital dictatorship in Myanmar: Biometric data collection sparks fear among activists

This article was written by Cherry Aung of Visual Rebellion, a collective for Myanmar journalists, photographers, filmmakers, and artists to publish their productions following the 2021 military coup.

The Myanmar military has significantly ramped up the implementation of a biometric data collection system over the past two months, according to data analysed by independent research groups. This is the latest step in oppressing democracy activists in the Southeast Asian nation, which has been under political turmoil since the February 2021 coup.

After the junta overthrew the elected civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, opponents of military rule have taken up arms, joining ethnic minority insurgents in some areas. The military has responded with air strikes, even targeting civilian areas. The junta also imposed widespread internet shutdowns and mobile network restrictions to control information flow and suppress dissent.

These internet blackouts were frequently enforced, targeting social media platforms and communication channels, leading to limited access to information and communication for citizens. Human rights organisations and the international community have raised concerns about the impact of these shutdowns on freedom of expression and access to information in the country.

Threats to digital rights persist, with the re-introduction of a draconian cybersecurity law in 2022 and now plans for biometric data collection.

Biometric data collection

Between June and July 2023, the state administration council conducted biometric data collection training for authorities and implemented the data collection project in towns and cities nationwide about 30 times, according to data published by independent research groups, Burma Affairs & Conflict Study, and the Myanmar Internet Project.

The junta’s Ministry of Immigration and Population is collecting fingerprints, iris scans, face scans, and an individual’s personal details such as name, father’s name, birth date, blood type, phone number, and email address. This would form part of the biographic data that will be used for the issuance of Unit ID cards, according to state news outlets.

This move raises concerns among digital rights activists regarding human rights, privacy, freedom of expression, and the possibility of surveillance under the current military dictatorship.

Although the source of the technology on the biometric data system for Myanmar is not known, the junta’s immigration minister went to India in late July “to explore the possibility of cooperation in implementing an E-ID system between two countries”, the state newspaper reported.

“The visit aimed to explore the potential for collaboration in adopting an e-ID system, reflecting Myanmar’s interest in strengthening ties with India in this technological domain,” according to the news report.

The Myanmar junta has been closely watching online communications since the coup, and the implementation of the biometric data system nationwide would be another “effective” way to surveil human rights defenders, according to a digital rights activist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“This biometric data will be used to link with other activities. For example, if you go to the bank, biometric data will be needed. This would also apply if you buy an air ticket or a phone SIM card,” said the activist who has been working in Myanmar for more than eight years.

“The collection of biometric data will effectively help [the junta] surveil human rights defenders and their activities, or whoever they do not like.”

Towards a ‘digital dictatorship’

UN human rights experts had strongly criticised the Myanmar military junta’s efforts to establish a “digital dictatorship” in the country.

They condemned the imposition of additional restrictions on internet access, internet shutdowns, online censorship, surveillance, and other barriers hindering internet freedom.

Shutting down the internet has often been used as a tactic by the military during periods of offensive attack. The military has imposed internet shutdowns in all 330 townships, with over 50 townships experiencing continuous disconnection for more than a year, according to rights group ARTICLE 19. The junta has also blocked websites and social media, including Facebook, a vital communication channel in Myanmar. Additionally, rising internet costs have made internet access unaffordable for many.

Contributing to the threat of further regime surveillance is the fact that telco operators in the country have links to the military since the sale of Telenor last year. Telco providers face pressure to enable surveillance and share user data with authorities.

Last year, the Myanmar junta also continued to roll out security cameras with Chinese facial recognition technology in major cities throughout the country in the name of creating smart cities, a project started by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi – despite concerns about privacy rights.

Given these developments, there is a possibility that these technologies will be used in tandem to further curb dissent and restrict the human and digital rights of the people of Myanmar. Human rights defenders will be in more danger, and rights to privacy will be lost. Minority groups and already marginalised and vulnerable sectors of society may also be excluded further.

“If they were to use facial recognition along with this biometric data, people will also lose the right to protest,” said a human rights defender who asked not to be named.

“The right to anonymity will also be lost in public spaces.”

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