As the Prayut Chan-o-cha government prepares to implement a second phase of reopenings that will see more businesses resuming operations, starting tomorrow, Thais are being told to accept a "new normal" that may compromise their privacy through a mobile application known as Thai Chana or "Thais win".
The new app, which was named by the prime minister, was supposed to open for registration yesterday afternoon on the website, with all the details and agreements with representatives of business operators finalised.
The second phase of reopenings is necessary to reboot an economy that has been depressed for months as a result of stringent lockdown measures aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19. Getting the nod to reopen are department stores, but they must shut their doors by 8pm.
The government and the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) have insisted the app is necessary and, at the same time, dismissed concerns that it will make it easier to assume the role of Big Brother.
The CCSA and the Digital Economy and Society Ministry (DES) insist that the information to be mined by the platform will be used strictly for disease control purposes, ruling out a hidden agenda. The agency responsible agency is the Disease Control Department under the Health Ministry.
CCSA spokesman Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin said the app is user friendly and all customers need to do is to "scan a QR code at a shop using their mobile phone when they check in and check out". At the same time, he stressed that it's the responsibility of Thais to make use of the platform.
Polawat Witoonkolachit, inspector-general of the DES, defended the platform saying that it is just a tool to help medical personnel locate those at risk when cases of the virus are reported. During a TV interview yesterday, Mr Polawat dodged the question of whether the QR code scanning is mandatory, saying only that "it's the duty of business operators to get their clients' telephone numbers".
It's likely that business operators will require their customers to register for fear of being closed down.
Several countries have resorted to tracking as a way to control the outbreak. But the use of such technology has been limited and consumer protection mechanisms and data protection generally stronger.
However, the enactment of Thailand's data protection act has been postponed until next year. Many see the introduction of the government's Thai Chana app and the delay of this important law as more than just a nasty coincidence. There are fears that the data will used for more than just Covid-19 tracking and could even be sold.
Such concerns are justified as the Thai state does not have the best record on human rights.
At the same time, the government is still keeping a tight grip on the people through its emergency decree, with its militaristic curfew, despite the steady decline in new cases in recent weeks. There is no need for a curfew since most nighttime gathering venues like pubs and movie theatres have been closed. Nevertheless, the government is currently only prepared to shorten it by an hour to 11pm-4am from 10pm-4am.
If the government insists on tracking its people, it must transparently protect their privacy. This should include assurances that, in order to prevent abuse, the system will erase personal data after a certain time.
The pandemic must not be used as an excuse to clamp down on freedom.