A digital firewall in Myanmar, built with guns and wire cutters


Written by Hannah Beech and Paul Mozur

The Myanmar soldiers descended before dawn Feb. 1, bearing rifles and wire cutters. At gunpoint, they ordered technicians at telecom operators to switch off the internet. For good measure, the soldiers snipped wires without knowing what they were severing, according to an eyewitness and a person briefed on the events.

The data center raids in Yangon and other cities in Myanmar were part of a coordinated strike in which the military seized power, locked up the country’s elected leaders and took most of its internet users offline.

Since the coup, the military has repeatedly shut off the internet and cut access to major social media sites, isolating a country that had only in the past few years linked to the outside world. The military regime has also floated legislation that could criminalize the mildest opinions expressed online.

So far, the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, has depended on cruder forms of control to restrict the flow of information. But the army seems serious about setting up a digital fence to more aggressively filter what people see and do online. Developing such a system could take years and would likely require outside help from Beijing or Moscow, according to experts.

Such a comprehensive firewall may also exact a heavy price: The internet outages since the coup have paralyzed a struggling economy. Longer disruptions will damage local business interests and foreign investor confidence as well as the military’s own vast business interests.

“The military is afraid of the online activities of people so they tried to block and shut down the internet,” stated Ko Zaw Thurein Tun, a president of a neighborhood chapter of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association. “But now international bank transactions have stopped, and the country’s economy is declining. It’s like their urine is watering their own face.”

If Myanmar’s digital controls change into everlasting, they might add to the worldwide partitions which might be more and more dividing what was alleged to be an open, borderless web. The blocks would additionally provide recent proof that extra nations wish to China’s authoritarian mannequin to tame the web. Two weeks after the coup, Cambodia, which is underneath China’s financial sway, additionally unveiled its personal sweeping web controls.

Even policymakers in the United States and Europe are setting their very own guidelines, though these are far much less extreme. Technologists fear that such strikes may in the end break aside the web, successfully undermining the net networks that hyperlink the world collectively.

The individuals of Myanmar could have gotten on-line later than most others, however their enthusiasm for the web has the zeal of the transformed. Communications on Facebook and Twitter, alongside with safe messaging apps, have united tens of millions of individuals in opposition to the coup.

Daily road protests towards the navy have gathered power in latest days, regardless of fears of a bloody crackdown. Demonstrators have rallied at China’s diplomatic missions in Myanmar, accusing Beijing of exporting the instruments of authoritarianism to its smaller neighbor.

Huawei and ZTE, two main Chinese firms, built a lot of Myanmar’s telecommunications community, particularly when Western monetary sanctions made it troublesome for different overseas corporations to function in the nation.

Myanmar’s two foreign-owned telecom operators, Telenor and Ooredo, have complied with quite a few calls for from the navy, together with directions to chop off the web every evening for the previous week, and block particular web sites, reminiscent of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All the whereas, the navy has positioned officers from its Signal Corps in cost of the Posts and Telecommunications Department, in line with two individuals with data of the division’s staffing.

A 36-page draft cybersecurity legislation that was distributed to telecoms and web service suppliers the week after the coup outlines draconian guidelines that may give the navy sweeping powers to dam web sites and lower off entry to customers deemed troublesome. The legislation would additionally permit the federal government broad entry to customers’ knowledge, which it stipulates the web suppliers should retailer for 3 years.

“The cybersecurity law is just a law to arrest people who are online,” stated Ma Htaike Htaike Aung, the manager director of MIDO, a civil society group that tracks expertise in Myanmar. “If it goes through, the digital economy will be gone in our country.”

When the draft of the legislation was despatched for remark to the overseas telecoms, the businesses’ representatives had been informed by the authorities that rejecting the legislation was not an choice, in line with two individuals with data of the conversations.

Those individuals and others with data of the continued makes an attempt to crack down on the web in Myanmar spoke to The New York Times on the situation of anonymity due to the sensitivities of the brand new regime.

The draft cybersecurity legislation follows a yearslong effort throughout the nation to construct out surveillance capabilities, usually following cues from China. Last 12 months, Telenor, a Norwegian-owned firm, raised considerations a couple of authorities push to register the identities of people who buy cellphone providers, which might permit authorities to hyperlink names to cellphone numbers.

The marketing campaign in Myanmar has to date been unsuccessful, although it bears similarities to China’s real-name registration insurance policies, which have change into a keystone of Beijing’s surveillance state. The program mirrored Myanmar’s ambitions but in addition simply how far-off it’s from attaining something near what China has completed.

In latest years, Huawei surveillance cameras made to trace automobiles and individuals have additionally gone up in the nation’s largest cities and in Naypyitaw, the underpopulated capital. A prime cybersecurity official in Myanmar lately confirmed off images of such street monitoring expertise on his private Facebook web page.

A Huawei spokesman declined to remark concerning the techniques.

For now, at the same time as anti-Chinese protests mount over fears of an inflow of high-tech tools, the Tatmadaw has ordered telecom firms to make use of much less refined strategies to hamper web entry. The methodology of selection is to decouple web site addresses from the collection of numbers a pc must lookup particular websites, a follow akin to itemizing a unsuitable quantity underneath an individual’s title in a cellphone e-book.

Savvier web customers skirt the blocks with digital personal networks or VPNs. But over the previous week, entry to some standard free VPNs in Myanmar has been hindered. And paid providers, that are more durable to dam, are unaffordable to most individuals in the nation, who additionally lack the worldwide bank cards wanted to buy them.

Zaw Thurein Tun, of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association, stated that he was sitting at dwelling, searching the web shortly after the coup, when a clutch of males arrived to arrest him. Other digital activists had already been detained throughout the nation. He ran.

He is now in hiding however helps to direct a civil disobedience marketing campaign towards the navy. Zaw Thurein Tun stated he’s involved that the Tatmadaw is assembling, brick by digital brick, its personal firewall.

“Then all of us will be in complete darkness again,” he stated.

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