Months before the coup, Myanmar army ordered intercept spyware

In the months before the Myanmar military’s February 1 coup, the country’s telecom and internet service providers were ordered to install intercept spyware that would allow the army to eavesdrop on the communications of citizens, sources with direct knowledge of the plan told Reuters.

The technology gives the military the power to listen in on calls, view text messages and web traffic including emails, and track the locations of users without the assistance of the telecom and internet firms, the sources said.

The directives are part of a sweeping effort by the army to deploy electronic surveillance systems and exert control over the internet with the aim of keeping tabs on political opponents, squashing protests and cutting off channels for any future dissent, they added.

Decision makers at the civilian Ministry of Transport and Communications that delivered the orders were ex-military officials, according to one industry executive with direct knowledge of the plans and another briefed on the matter.

“They presented it as coming from the civilian government, but we knew the army would have control and were told you could not refuse,” the executive with direct knowledge said, adding that officials from the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs also sat in on the meetings.

More than a dozen people with knowledge of the intercept spyware used in Myanmar have been interviewed by Reuters. All asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the military government.

Neither representatives for the military government nor representatives for politicians attempting to form a new civilian government responded to Reuters requests for comment.

Budget documents from 2019 and 2020 for the previous government led by Aung San Suu Kyi that were not disclosed publicly contain details of a planned $4m in purchases of intercept spyware products and parts as well as sophisticated data extraction and phone hacking technology. The documents were provided by activist group Justice for Myanmar and were independently verified by Reuters.

Reuters was not able to establish to what extent senior non-military people in Suu Kyi’s government had been involved in the order to install the intercept.

‘Lawful intercept’

The idea of a so-called ‘lawful intercept’ was first floated by Myanmar authorities to the telecommunications sector in late 2019 but pressure to install such technology came only in late 2020, several sources said, adding that they were warned not to talk about it.

The intercept plans were flagged publicly by Norway’s Telenor in an annual update on its Myanmar business, which is one of the country’s biggest telecom firms with 18 million customers out of a population of 54 million.

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