The top official in charge of Thailand’s digital infrastructure became the first official to acknowledge the use of the cell phone spyware Pegasus in the country, just hours after the national police force denied any involvement in its use.
Minister of Digital Economy and Society Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn told a parliamentary session on Tuesday night that he was personally aware of Pegasus being used in Thailand in cases related to “national security” and drug trafficking – a frank admission that was immediately seized by a civil rights activist to bolster his bid to sue the government over its spying campaigns.
“I have to thank Mr Chaiwut for being straightforward about this,” Yingcheep Atchanont, Coordinator of iLaw, an NGO that monitors abuses of legal power, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Yingcheep said he recently discovered, through the collaboration of three watchdog groups, that he was a victim of a surveillance effort using Pegasus, sophisticated spyware developed by an Israeli company.
At least 29 other individuals, mostly government critics and advocates for monarchy reform, also had their phones infected by Pegasus, according to the findings published by the three organizations: Citizen Lab, DigitalReach, and iLaw, where Yingcheep works.
Although the joint investigation unveiled on Monday did not offer explicit evidence as to who was behind the Pegasus attacks, analyses conducted by the three groups point to the Thai authorities as the most likely culprit, since the attacks were made against political dissidents.
Yingcheep said he has been mulling a lawsuit against the government as a response to its use of Pegasus, but he lacked any admission from officialdom.
That suddenly changed on Tuesday, when Chaiwut said during the no-confidence censure debate that Pegasus does indeed have an operational history in the kingdom.
“As far as I know, it involves cases related to national security and narcotics,” Chaiwut said in reply to a lawmaker who asked him about the Pegasus allegations. “When you have to arrest drug traffickers, you must eavesdrop on them and find out where they’re making their drug deliveries. I understand that [Pegasus] has been used in this manner.”
He continued, “But its use is very limited. It has to be special cases only, or important cases, like eavesdropping on drug kingpins. I have heard that it’s been used in those cases.”
But Chaiwut quickly added that his Ministry is not involved in Pegasus operations. “We don’t have the power to do this kind of thing,” he said.
Yingcheep from iLaw said the acknowledgement that Pegasus has been deployed by the Thai authorities, regardless of the precise agencies or bureaus, is enough evidence to support his lawsuit.
“We’ve been preparing to sue already, and Mr Chaiwut’s remarks will be one of the pieces of information that we’ll cite,” Yingcheep said. “But there are also other pieces of information. We have collected other evidence as well. We’ll speak more about them later on.”
At the investigation launch on Monday, the activist said he was planning a class action suit to seek financial compensation for the serious privacy breach caused by Pegasus.
According to the investigation by iLaw and its partner organizations, a cluster of Pegasus servers were registered by an individual in Thailand back in 2016. The registration was made with the email “[redacted][email protected]”.
Some have speculated that the name may refer to the Narcotics Suppression Bureau, the government’s anti-drug agency that routinely runs surveillance ops on suspected traffickers.
On Tuesday, just hours before Chaiwut’s remark to the parliament, a spokesman for the national police insisted that its force was not involved in the use of Pegasus.
“The Royal Thai Police have never used any spyware to violate anyone’s rights as suggested in those news reports and rumours spread on social media,” Pol Col Krissana Phathanacharoen was quoted as saying by Bangkok Post. “The RTP strictly follows laws and regulations.”
Speaking at Tuesday’s censure debate, opposition MP Saran Timsuwan also accused the government of spending up to 1 million baht per each operation conducted by Pegasus. Chaiwut did not respond to Saran’s allegation.
Pegasus is a highly sophisticated snooping program developed by NSO Group, a tech security firm based in Israel. The company insists that it only sells products to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to combat serious crimes, like terrorism.
But privacy advocates in many countries have discovered numerous instances where Pegasus was deployed to target political dissidents, journalists and political leaders, including 3 presidents, 10 prime ministers and one king. Cases have been found in France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Morocco, El Salvador, and the Palestinian Territories among many other countries.
Note: An original writing has been replaced with an edited version at 16.30 of 21 July 2022.