Recently news reports indicated that tourists visiting Thailand would be required to use a special SIM card in their phone which would allow the Thai government to track their whereabouts. While many at the time raged that this would impact tourism, most expats felt safe in that they didn’t think it would impact them.
The government has since clarified the new program to state that all non-Thai citizens would be required to use the new SIM cards.
Unfortunately, most of the conversation both about the tourist SIM and the non-Thai SIM initiatives seems to be littered with massive amounts of misinformation. Many people are unable to read between the lines while others are just ignorant of how cellular technology works.
Khao Sod’s article seems to offer the most comprehensive information about the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission’s (NBTC) plan for this new foreigner SIM card.
The Secretary General of the NBTC, Takorn Tantasith said:
“We would just facilitate the police. So they could more easily track foreigners who enter the country and commit crimes,” he said. “The function is not in SIMs card for Thais because we can always easily track them.”
As many have rightly pointed out, this seems like an overreaching policy that could easily be defeated simply by leaving one’s phone at home, turning off the phone, removing the foreigner SIM, or simply never purchasing a Thai foreigner SIM.
For anybody looking to do real harm, this would be Bad Guy 101.
Additionally, what would prevent a foreigner staying in Thailand from having a spouse or significant other from buying a SIM card in a their name for the foreigner? And surely there will be enterprising Thais who purchase SIM cards, register them in the names of Thai citizens (living or dead) and sell them to foreigners who do not want to be tracked.
Also not addressed is the fact that the NBTC has stated that foreigners who do not use a Thai SIM card but instead roam using a foreign SIM card will not be subject to this particular form of tracking.
This has raised several questions as to the goal of this new program as all Thai SIM cards are supposed to be registered to an individual already. Foreigners must show a passport and Thais must show their Thai ID card when purchasing a SIM card. What would be the purpose of a special SIM card that is only used by foreigners?
Similarly many are questioning whether the NBTC's stated goals of investigating crimes committed by foreigners is actually the real reason for this heavy handed, expensive program. Is foreigner crime such a problem that a program such as this can even be justified in terms of cost?
As one can see, there are a lot of good questions that don't have obvious answers.
But if one looks at further statements by the NBTC, it may shed some light or at least narrow down answers.
The NBTC has stated that the purpose of this program is for national security reasons. Again, this seems odd if we are limiting ourselves to petty crimes like fraud or theft committed by foreigners. These crimes would not rise to the national security level.
“Takorn said the rationale was to maintain national security and prevent the transnational crime.”
Unfortunately, one can lump any concern into the "national security" bucket no matter how unlikely.
Realistically, the two main areas that would seem to fit are terrorism and political stability.
However, anybody wishing to engage in terrorism or plot against the current political structure would surely just not coordinate their efforts via a Thai SIM card for foreigners.
That said, the current government is run by former military men and controlling the communications network during a time of crisis like during an invasion or a coup is standard operating procedure. Perhaps this is simply what they know and regardless of the efficiency of implementing such a program, it gives them a feeling of preparedness.
However, this same Thai government floated the idea of building a grand firewall similar to the one in China in order to control and monitor what people were able to access. And this comes on top of several high profile cases where Thai citizens have been questioned and arrested over not just what they've written themselves but for even "liking" content written by others on Facebook and other social media.
And even if you trust that the current government is honest and will only obtain your location data after obtaining a court order, once the technology exists, any new government could use it as they see fit which may not include seeking a court order prior to spying on foreigners.
Yet another curious aspect of this foreigner SIM is that in addition to the fact that everyone is supposed to register their information to the SIM already, cellular triangulation, aka location tracking, is already possible without a special SIM.
Cellular triangulation is currently how most cell phones can be tracked. When your cell phone communicate with the cellular tower the strength of the signal as well as the relative strength of your cell phone signal to other cellular towers allows for the calculation of your approximate location within a few meters.
All phones on a cellular network can be tracked by this method and it is widely used by law enforcement agencies around the world.
Moreover, it is entirely unclear how this new SIM technology might work. In theory, a SIM card could be created that would transfer additional data that is not normally transmitted allowing the government to set up receivers around cities and around the country that listen for this information and report it.
Technically, this could be done without obtaining a court order as they would not need to access the cellular provider’s records in order to obtain this information as your phone is transmitting it into the airwaves and they are simply listening for it.
If this is what the government is proposing, another serious concern is what is to keep a sophisticated bad guy from listening for this information himself? Depending on the information being transmitted, it could be a serious security concern for foreigners with this SIM cards in their phones.
This would also cause massive concern worldwide prompting nations like the EU, the US, and similar countries to warn their citizens not to use the Thai foreigner SIM cards.
Ultimately, it should be a cause for alarm that the NBTC is even proposing something like this. First and most importantly because it is a monumental breach of privacy. Second is the ham handed way in which they've announced the program. Lastly, because it seems so easy for serious criminals or terrorists to defeat that it's essentially a waste of money.
Surely they could have tied in some benefits to foreigners that may have had them overlook the privacy concerns. For instance, had they eliminated the 90 day reporting requirement for expats, many of them would have gladly given up their privacy in exchange for convenience. Not that they should but many would do so willingly.
But with no benefit for foreigners, murky excuses as to why it is even needed, and causing a feeling of being singled out and targeted, it has become, yet again, obvious that the Thai government is tone deaf.
Some have dismissed the attempt to monitor foreigners as being foolish and say that Thailand doesn’t have the technological chops to be able to do any widespread surveillance, but if they are even partially wrong, there are stakes higher than simply being able to know the location of a foreigner.
To get an idea of what kind of nefarious uses are possible, take a moment and watch this Vice special on mobile phone surveillance and their interview with Edward Snowden.
The real threat is that once you let the Thai government into your phone, you may be compromising more than just your location.
Once inside your phone, it might be possible for them to install hacking software in the background which would allow access your phone’s microphone, your photos, or even the ability to record your phone calls (BTW, if they record at the source microphone, WhatsApp or Facebook end to end encryption would be rendered ineffective since the recording would happen before and after the encryption/decryption takes place).
The best case scenario at the moment is that the NBTC realizes they just kicked a hornet’s nest and they take a long look at what the true benefits of such a program would be versus the backlash that will surely ensue and come to the conclusion that the pain far outweighs the gain.