Today, the military dictatorship of Thailand announced that it would be implementing the use of customized SIM cards that will allow authorities to track the movements of foreigners within the country. Under the proposed law, anyone not holding a Thai passport would be required to exchange their normal SIM card for the government-authorized one, which is being justified as necessary to help combat terrorism and crime in Thailand. The plan is set to be enacted within six months, and while it could just be a ploy by the unpopular government to appear to be cracking down on unrest, it would most certainly be a massive invasion of privacy and a huge hindrance to U.S. and other special operations and intelligence operations in the region.
White-sand beaches and Mai Tais—not
The government’s explanation for using the measure to keep its citizens safer is unlikely to allay the fears of many would-be foreign travelers. Travel to the country has already taken a hit since the 2014 military-led coup. The country’s constitution was suspended (a new one, written by—you guessed it—the military, was approved this past weekend) and, in a nod to North Korea, “attitude adjustment” camps have been established to give regime opponents the occasional tune-up when deemed necessary. Not exactly something the board of tourism is likely to throw on a brochure.
According to Takorn Tantasith, Thailand’s secretary general for the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (like our FCC, I think), the law will take effect for any foreigner the minute they step onto Thai soil, and a court order isn’t required to track an individual. “We will separate SIM cards for foreigners and Thais. The location will always be turned on in this SIM card for foreigners. And it cannot be turned off.” It cannot be turned off. For an intel officer or special operations team running a job in-country, that thought is a nightmare. But it isn’t the end of the world.
Let’s be straight up. Without giving away any secrets, there are ways around the laws. Hell, there is an entire division at the CIA (Science and Technology) dedicated to stuff like this. Within Thailand, there is an age-old mechanism that has been used for thousands of years to circumvent the authorities: the black market. Everyone has heard of SIM cards being bought and sold by the dozens in Iraq and Afghanistan. A transaction like that is sure to get the attention of counter-terror and counter-drug folks. But a single black market SIM card, or even six cards purchased from separate sources, is not likely to attract much notice.
The bad, the ugly, and a silver lining
But tourism is sure to suffer. Some figures put Thailand’s foreign tourists at somewhere around nearly 28 million people per year, or around 20 percent of its gross domestic product. Knowing that the government is going to be holding onto your SIM card and tracking you while in country may be more than enough to deter that nature magazine photographer or couple looking to honeymoon on the beaches of Phuket. On the positive side, it might also deter the international sex trafficker from traveling, or better yet, aid in their arrest (bye bye, scumbag). The issue is that these same scumbags are just as adept at using the black markets.
Just as alarming for intelligence officials is the revelation by Tantasith that plans along the same lines as Thailand are being considered for adaptation in Malaysia and Singapore as well. Much like the use of biometrics at airports, government-mandated SIM cards will change the game of spying and special operations. However, as with biometrics, the measure has its limitations, be it black market workarounds or the fact that you can pick up your original SIM on the way out (the question then becomes, what little “extras” via the local intel service will you be taking with you?). Whatever the obstacle, in the end, it comes down to the operator or spy being on top of his or her game.