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Thailand: State-backed digital abuse used to silence women and LGBTI activists - new report

Evidence points to Thai government’s involvement in use of highly-invasive Pegasus spyware against activists

Report based on in-depth interviews with 40 women and LGBTI activists, including many young activists

‘The ultimate goal of these attacks is to assassinate activists’ character, undermine their credibility, delegitimise their role and isolate them- Elina Castillo Jiménez

Women and LGBTI activists in Thailand are being subjected to an onslaught of online misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic language, sexualised content and other forms of technology-facilitated gender-based abuse, Amnesty International said in a major new report today.

The 102-page report, Being Ourselves is Too Dangerous,” highlights how women and LGBTI activists in Thailand have been unlawfully targeted with digital surveillance, including Pegasus spyware and online harassment by state and non-state actors in an effort to silence them.

Following the 2014 military coup, activists at the forefront of peaceful protests in Thailand have used digital technology to speak out about human rights but this technology is also being used to harass them, spread gendered disinformation and channel hateful speech and sexualised content that’s degrading to women and LGBTI people.

The report is based on in-depth interviews with 40 women and LGBTI activists, including many young activists and those living in the country’s Malay Muslim-majority southern border provinces. Among those interviewed are nine of the 15 women activists confirmed to have been targeted in 2020 and 2021 by Pegasus, the highly-invasive spyware developed by the Israeli cybertechnology company NSO Group. Amnesty’s report shows how this targeted digital surveillance disproportionately impacted women and LGBTI activists, creating a uniquely gendered fear that the breach of their private data could lead to further blackmailing, harassment and discrimination.

A 22-year-old student activist, Niraphorn Onnkhaow, was shocked when she received an Apple threat notification informing her that her device might be a target of “[s]tate-sponsored attackers”. In fact, her iPhone had been infected with Pegasus spyware 14 times - the highest number among all targeted individuals in Thailand. She believes this was linked to her participation in the youth-led pro-democracy protest movement that began in 2020.

Niraphorn Onnkhaow said:

“As a woman, having my privacy invaded is frightening. If I have private photos on my phone, they could be leaked to smear my reputation and hurt me to the extent that I’d have to stop my activism. I believe women and LGBTI activists are being watched, monitored and scrutinised more closely.”

Technical and circumstantial evidence, combined with the NSO Group’s policy of selling its products exclusively to governments, strongly point to the involvement of one or more Thai state actors in cases where Pegasus was used. Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission shares the same assessment that a Thai government agency was involved in the use of the spyware. 

Amnesty also interviewed activists who received alerts from Meta that their Facebook accounts were targeted by a “government-backed or sophisticated attacker”. Patcharadanai Rawangsub, a gay man, was a member of Talu Fah, a pro-democracy group and one of several activists to receive the alert. After learning that his online activities were under surveillance, he feared his private data could be used to prosecute him.

Patcharadanai Rawangsub said:

“Going to prison is my worst nightmare. For gay men and trans women, Thai prisons can be brutal as you will most likely be sexually harassed and assaulted and face discrimination.”

Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, Amnesty International’s Thailand Researcher, said:

“Thailand has long positioned itself as a champion of gender equality and made various pledges at the international level to protect women’s and LGBTI rights. However, the reality is that women and LGBTI activists in the country continue to face severe gender-based violence facilitated by digital technology.

“The Thai government must publicly commit to refrain from the use of targeted digital surveillance and online harassment, protect activists, investigate all cases and provide individuals who have been targeted with effective remedy.”

Wide-ranging tactics of online harassment

Some activists have faced violence in the form of doxing - the revealing of personal or identifying documents or details about someone online without their consent. Non-binary youth feminist activist Nitchakarn Rakwongrit told Amnesty that when they were 17 years old an anonymous X (formerly Twitter) account publicly posted their private information, including ID card number and criminal charges which they faced due to their involvement in peaceful protests. The aim of the doxing appeared to be to intimidate and discourage Rakwongrit from continuing with their activism.

Many LGBTI activists in the Muslim community have faced online threats of violence for their activism, including in the case of three Muslim transgender women activists threatened after giving an online media interview about anti-LGBTI discrimination within their community.

Elina Castillo Jiménez, Amnesty International’s Security Lab Researcher on targeted digital surveillance, said:

“The ultimate goal of these attacks is to assassinate activists’ character, undermine their credibility, delegitimise their role and isolate them from the rest of society. It is a pervasive tactic that sends a clear warning: women and LGBTI activists will be punished if they dare to challenge the status quo.”

Silencing women and LGBTI activists

Amnesty found that digital abuse caused many women and LGBTI activists to censor themselves, in some cases stopping their human rights work altogether. Some activists also suffered serious mental health conditions, including paranoia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “We use digital tools [...] to communicate with each other. However, we wouldn't post anything about our activities on social media. It’s too dangerous,” said a Malay Muslim gender-diverse student activist from Pattani province.

Globally, more than half of women and girls are reported to have been abused and harassed online. Those facing further marginalisation due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression and sex characteristics, and other forms of discrimination, are disproportionately impacted.

Lack of investigations

The Thai government denied any involvement in the targeted digital surveillance and online harassment of women and LGBTI activists but did not express any willingness to investigate the cases highlighted in Amnesty’s research. Amnesty is calling on the Government to ban highly-invasive spyware and establish a human-rights compliant regulatory system for other types of spyware. Until then, it should enact a global moratorium on the sale, use, export, transfer and support of other forms of spyware.

Amnesty sent letters to NSO Group and affiliate entities asking about the sale of Pegasus software used to target nine of the 40 interviewees. None of the companies replied. NSO Group must stop the production, sale, transfer, use and support of Pegasus or other similar highly-invasive spyware and provide adequate redress to victims of unlawful targeted surveillance through Pegasus in Thailand.


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