© Summer Panadd

Thailand: State-backed digital violence used to silence women and LGBTI activists

Women and LGBTI activists in Thailand are being subjected to an online onslaught of abusive speech laced with misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic language, sexualized content and other forms of technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TfGBV), Amnesty International said in a new report released today.

The report, Being Ourselves is Too Dangerous,” highlights how women and LGBTI activists 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.

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.

Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, Amnesty International Regional Researcher for Thailand

“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,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, Amnesty International Regional Researcher for Thailand.

Following the 2014 military coup, activists at the forefront of peaceful protests in Thailand have leveraged digital technology to speak out about human rights amidst the shrinking civic space.

However, the report shows how this tool is being used to harass them, spread gendered disinformation and channel hateful speech and sexualized content degrading to women and LGBTI people.

The report is primarily 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.

Targeted digital surveillance

As part of its research, Amnesty International interviewed nine of the 15 women activists confirmed to have been targeted in 2020 and 2021 by Pegasus, the highly invasive spyware developed by Israeli cybertechnology company NSO Group. The report shows 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.

Niraphorn Onnkhaow, a 22-year-old student activist, 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 was infected with Pegasus spyware 14 times – the highest number among all the targeted individuals in Thailand. Onnkhaow believes this was linked to her participation in the youth-led pro-democracy protest movement that began in 2020.

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.

Niraphorn Onnkhaow

“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,” said Onnkhaow . “I believe women and LGBTI activists are being watched, monitored and scrutinized 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 the 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 International also interviewed activists, including LGBTI individuals, who received alerts from Meta that their Facebook accounts were targeted by a “government-backed or sophisticated attacker”.

Patcharadanai Rawangsub, who identifies as 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.

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.

Patcharadanai Rawangsub

“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,” he said.

Wide-ranging tactics of online harassment

Amnesty International Thailand’s Executive Director Piyanut Kotsan was portrayed as a foreign agent trying to undermine the Thai government in coordinated online campaigns suspected to be initiated or supported by state or state-aligned actors.

Some activists 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 International that when they were 17 years old, an anonymous X (formerly Twitter) account publicly posted their private information, including their ID card number, and criminal charges that they faced due to their involvement in peaceful protests. The doxing appeared to be aimed at intimidating and discouraging them from continuing their activism.

Many LGBTI activists in the Muslim community have faced violent online backlash for their activism. In one notable example, three Muslim transgender women activists received threats of violence after giving an online media interview about anti-LGBTI discrimination within their community.

The ultimate goal of these attacks is to assassinate the activists’ character, undermine their credibility, delegitimize 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.

lina Castillo Jiménez, Amnesty International’s Security Lab Researcher

“The ultimate goal of these attacks is to assassinate the activists’ character, undermine their credibility, delegitimize 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,” said Elina Castillo Jiménez, Amnesty International’s Security Lab Researcher on targeted digital surveillance.

The silencing of women and LGBTI activists

Amnesty International found that digital violence created a chilling effect among many women and LGBTI activists who began self-censoring and, in some cases, disengaging from human rights work altogether. Some activists also suffered serious mental health repercussions, 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 marginalization due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression and sex characteristics, and other forms of discrimination, are disproportionately impacted.

“Digital tools are essential for women, girls and LGBTI people in Thailand and around the world, to facilitate their self-expression, activism and to promote gender justice. But TfGBV makes digital spaces unsafe for them, preventing them from fully speaking out for human rights.” said Shreshtha Das, Amnesty International Gender Advisor/Researcher.

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 cases highlighted in the research.

By not taking meaningful steps to protect activists, the Thai government has failed to meet their responsibilities under international human rights treaties to which Thailand is a state party, including guaranteeing the rights to freedom from gender-based violence, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, privacy and an effective remedy.

“The Thai government must publicly commit to refrain, and protect activists, from the use of targeted digital surveillance and online harassment. It must also investigate all cases of TfGBV against women and LGBTI activists and provide individuals who have been targeted with effective remedy,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong.

Amnesty International is also calling on Thailand 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.

NSO Group has also failed to fulfil its human rights responsibilities under international legal standards.

Amnesty International wrote letters to NSO Group and affiliate entities inquiring about the sale of the Pegasus software used to target nine of the 40 interviewees. None of the companies replied.

NSO Group must cease the production, sale, transfer, use and support of Pegasus or other similar highly invasive spyware. The company must also provide adequate redress to victims of unlawful targeted surveillance through Pegasus in Thailand.

“Thailand will never be the haven for gender equality it often claims to be, unless the government and relevant private companies immediately take actions to end TfGBV,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong. 

Background:

This report is part of Amnesty International’s global flagship campaign Protect The Protest whichbuilds on the organization’s existing work on the , as well as its work on the intersection of gender and technology.

Previously, a report by the Thai NGO iLaw, Digital Reach and The Citizen Lab found Pegasus infections on the phones of 35 individuals between 2020 to 2021. Amnesty International’s Security Lab conducted an independent analysis for five of these.

Further research on TfGBV is also being carried out in Uganda and Canada as part of the Make It Safe Online campaign and will be launched in the coming months.