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Media watchdogs claim an upgrade by the Burmese government of its internet service will be used to reinforce surveillance and repression of national web users.
The junta last month announced the launch of the country’s first national web portal, which will be operated by the state-run Yatanarpon Teleport from Burma’s new Yadanabon cyber-city, close to Mandalay.
At just two percent of the total population, Burma has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world, but the government claims the launch will mark a huge step forward in the country’s technological development.
A new report, ‘National Web Portal – Development or Repression’, claims however that the new infrastructure will be used against internet users, who are already subject to close monitoring.
“The new system requires internet requests to go through even more ISP [internet service provider] servers and therefore users are subjected to more screening and controls,” it says.
More ominously, the upgrade “grants the military exclusive control over the Hantharwaddy National Gateway”, Burma’s main link to the global internet. “The military is therefore now in a position to spy on all Burmese citizens – civilians, soldiers and government service personnel.”
In a joint statement by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontieres – RSF) and Burma Media Association, the watchdogs said that the new system, which uses three ISPs instead of the previous two, reserves “the fastest and best-quality [internet] access for the government and military”.
The junta often slows or shuts down the internet during politically sensitive times, albeit reluctantly given that their access is also blocked. But, says the report, the new system means they can block internet access for the public whilst keeping it online for government workers.
Owners of internet cafes are already required to take regular screen-shots of each computer being used and send these to the government’s information ministry. But, says the RSF-BMA statement, the military’s added control will “allow it to use sniffers and DNS [Domain Name System] spoofing to capture data packets and confidential user information without anyone realizing”.
An RSF report last year named Burma as one of 12 global ‘Enemies of the Internet’, while the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists labelled it the “worst country to be a blogger”. Around 17 journalists are behind bars, some serving sentences as long as 27 years.