Thailand's Big Brother is upping the ante

Thailand's Big Brother is upping the ante

Protesters demand an inquiry into the Pegasus spyware scandal in Tel Aviv, Israel in February. The notorious spyware gathered local attention last month during the censure debate against the government. (Photo: AFP)
Protesters demand an inquiry into the Pegasus spyware scandal in Tel Aviv, Israel in February. The notorious spyware gathered local attention last month during the censure debate against the government. (Photo: AFP)

In the late 18th century, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham visited his younger brother, Samuel, in Russia, who arranged unskilled factory workers in a circle so that he could supervise them. Inspired by this principle, Bentham developed "the panopticon", an inspection tower surrounded by cells. Its uniqueness was that it enabled a watchman to monitor prisoners without them knowing they were being watched.

Modern philosophers revisited this discreet surveillance idea. Among them was the late French philosopher Michel Foucault who looked at Bentham's idea again in his groundbreaking work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, published in 1975. I read an excerpt titled Panopticism, where he analysed how officials took measures from distributing rations and self-reporting to disinfecting houses when the plague broke out at the end of the seventeenth century. Bentham's proposal, he said, was the architectural figure of his writing.

"In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and yet unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so."

The panopticon concept survives and is alive in digital age. There is no need to get towers built. Panopticon's ethos on visibility and being unverifiable has influenced state surveillance systems.

A vivid example is the case of the surveillance spyware, Pegasus. The notorious spyware gathered local attention last month during the censure debate.

A few days before the debate, a joint investigation by human rights and cyber watchdogs on July 18 released a report after forensic checks on the mobile phones of activists and political activists in Thailand. The report showed that least 30 government critics were hacked by the Pegasus spyware from October 2020 to November 2021, coinciding with the pro-democracy movement calling for political and reform of the monarchy.

NSO Group, the Israeli developer of the Pegasus spyware, reportedly sold spyware to governments, but Thai authorities have denied knowledge of the matter.

Other probes followed. In the censure debate, Phicharn Chaowapatanawong, a list-MP from from the Move Forward Party (MFP), exposed three purchase orders for spyware -- Pegasus, RCS Labs from Italy, and Bulgaria-based Circles -- from 2014-2022. Some of them, he claimed, were acquired by state agencies.

Digital Economy and Society Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn admitted in the censure debate that the country employs these techniques in cases involving narcotics and national security, but claimed the DES did not have the legal authority to use such software.

In my opinion, the possibility of expanding the use of invasive spyware from political dissidents to everyday citizens is sparking fears of panopticonism.

It demonstrates the exercise of Bentham's visible and unverifiable surveillance power. We see the central tower over there, but never know for sure whether we are being watched. As a result, it sends a signal to us all to police ourselves and refrain from joining in political activities.

Surveillance spyware reinforces the boundary between the abnormal and the normal, chaos and order, the transgressive and the obedient, and so on. It excludes critics from the entire population and justifies disciplinary treatment, including correcting and punishing them for their behaviours. The abuse of technology stifles the pro-democracy movement because it discourages everyday citizens from joining a network and mass movement to challenge the ruling elite.

The big question is that we don't know to what extent our government uses this spyware and how many people have been bugged.

Digital spyware is actually far better than the Bentham brothers' panopticon.

The Pegasus program infects a target's phone and sends back data, including photos, messages and audio/video recordings.

Its unique quality is the software can't be traced back to the government using it -- a crucial feature for clandestine operations.

It has been widely reported that the spyware has infected 50,000 numbers concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens -- among them activists and journalists -- with cases reported in Mexico. The Pegasus bug has been linked to the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was slain after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

The Washington Post reported last December that the NSO's Pegasus military-grade spyware developed by NSO Group was planted on a phone used by someone in Khashoggi's inner circle in the months before his murder.

This digital panapticon is extremely threatening. It works and functions as a virus that seeps into our daily life. With a touch, anyone -- especially those who criticise Big Brother and the powers-that-be can be infected by this spyware plague.

As Foucault said, "in order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague".

Thana Boonlert

Bangkok Post columnist

Thana Boonlert is a writer for the Life section and a Bangkok Post columnist.

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