The Ministry of Defense has downplayed reports that it requested private mobile location data from mobile networks in Thailand to track people who were in close contact with covid-19 patients, following uproar over an invasion of privacy.
A leaked document published by activist and academic, Sarinee Achavanuntakul, detailed the request to mobile operators. The paper asked operators to provide location data of new coronavirus patients over the past two weeks and the information of anyone who was near them.
Despite the leaked documents, the Defense Ministry spokesperson, Lt Gen Kongcheep Tantravanich, downplayed the situation. He said the ministry does not have the authority to request such private information.
However, he also confirmed that a request was made to the National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), saying:
“We have good intentions. We collaborated with different agencies to see whether the plan is possible. We concluded that it is executable, so we sent that letter out for the benefit of an outbreak investigation.”
Concerns over privacy is a significant issue in Thailand, with Amnesty International recently blasting Prayut’s ruling government with a report title “They are always watching.”
Despite a public outcry following details of the request from the Defense Ministry, Lt Gen Tantravanich said that privacy is not an issue. He continued that the requested information would only be used to send SMS messages to people who were in close contact with covid-19 patients.
He attempted to justify the use of private location data, using the Lumpinee Boxing Stadium cluster as an example:
“If we had the mobile phone information of all 2,800 people at the stadium, we would have been able to send a text to warn them immediately,”
He continued by trying to reassure the public that their data will not be used for anything else, and the request was just part of a “brainstorming” exercise to prepare for the second wave of infections.
The Thai Government is already tracking people’s movements when entering businesses, shopping malls, and venues using the ThaiChana app, which requires people to scan in and out of locations using their phone numbers.