Government officials in Thailand last year demanded access to chat app Line so that they could monitor conversations taking place in the country, and this week a politician claimed that they can now do so.
The Nation reports that ICT Minister Pornchai Rujiprapa told a press conference that the government “can monitor all the nearly 40 million Line messages sent by people in Thailand each day.”
A Line spokesperson denied the validity of the original report and told TechCrunch that it does not provide user information to Thailand’s government. The full statement is at the bottom of this post.
The minister’s claim is quite the revelation in Thailand, which is one of handful of markets in Asia where mobile messaging apps are bigger than Facebook. Line claims more than 30 million registered users in Thailand, and that could mean that it has more signups than Facebook.
If the Thai government is monitoring Line, it looks like it is complementing its ongoing efforts to block content deemed to be illegal on a range of social networks.
Minister Pornchai revealed that any users who come across messages that violate Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws (which protect against defamation of the monarchy) should contact authorities who can “trace where the messages originally come from.”
Past arrests under lese majeste have related the sending of SMS, Facebook messages, internet forums and websites, and perhaps Line will soon be a part of that. But there is also a new undercurrent of political activism that Thai authorities may be keen to combat.
Thailand’s army chief (now Prime Minister) took power from the elected government via a military coup in May this year. The new administration has faced a number of protests, which recently included students who borrowed the three finger salute of defiance from the Hunger Games movie franchise.
The junta government has threated to censor various websites where users were critical of it, and there was even a temporary blocking of Facebook. Officials tried to arrange meetings with Google and Facebook to discuss censorship measures this summer, but were unable to get either company to the table.
The suggestion that authorities now have free filter over all messages sent via the country’s top social network is a hugely worrying development from a privacy perspective, not to mention Line’s own security.
Last year, for example, Line was found to be vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks which could allow third parties to access messages sent over cellular data. Line patched the issue, and it has since introduced an encrypted chat feature, but anecdotally I’ve never seen anyone actually use it beyond the day it was launched.
It remains possible that the government could be keeping tabs on the service using its own system, and thus without the cooperation of Line. Officials were thought be planning their own internet gateway for a more efficient censorship system and that could tie into this.
No details have been announced publicly on the project and even if it is genuine it would take years to construct, but it highlights the possibility that Thailand might work with ISPs, operators and service providers but not internet companies themselves to monitor and govern its patch of cyberspace.
Here’s Line’s statement in full:
LINE has confirmed with [Thailand’s] ICT (Ministry of Information and Communication Technology) that ICT denies the alleged fact of LINE messages being monitored by ICT.
Since LINE has been encrypted all messages, it is technically impossible to monitor LINE’s conversation by any third party.
LINE users’ privacy is our top priority, hence we do not allow other third party to monitor LINE messages.