Updated: May 19, 2020 06:00 AM GMT
A woman wearing a face mask smiles in a shopping mall as it reopened after restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus were lifted in Bangkok on May 18. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP)
A new mobile phone application that has been developed by Thailand’s government to track potential carriers of the virus that causes Covid-19 has raised concerns about violations of privacy.
The app, known as Thai Chana (Thais win), has been deployed at shopping malls, restaurants and other venues around the country, with customers and patrons being required to scan a QR code with their mobile phone whenever they enter and leave.
The app, which enables authorities to monitor the movement of people, will only be used for medical purposes by enabling medical staff to locate people at risk of infection when new cases are reported at a specific location, according to Polawat Witoonkolachit, inspector-general of the Digital Economy and Society Ministry, which has developed the app with the government’s Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration.
Polawat said that “it’s the duty of business operators to get their clients’ telephone numbers” so that people could later be notified, if need be.
As Thailand is relaxing a strict two-month lockdown by allowing more businesses to reopen in the coming days and weeks, the app will serve to ensure that a resurgence of the virus can be contained or better managed, officials said.
However, citizens have been raising concerns on social media that the app could be misused and their movements monitored by authorities in a country where social media activities are already closely examined for signs of anti-establishment sentiments and critics can be jailed over relatively innocuous comments.
“I don’t feel comfortable checking in and out every time I do some shopping or eat out,” an office worker in Bangkok told UCA News. “The government says it will protect our privacy, but knowing them I have serious doubts.”
Many long-term expatriates are equally concerned. “It really is becoming a surveillance police state,” one expat from the United Kingdom told UCA News, mincing no words.
“Anyone foolish or naive enough to think this Orwellian violation of human rights has anything to do with the Covid virus needs to go back to college,” another foreign resident posted online. “I’m 62 years old. I do not want to carry a bulky phone and do not want to be tracked as if I had committed a crime and was on probation.”
In March Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014, gave himself emergency powers ostensibly to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The emergency decree, which allows Prayut to rule by fiat, remains in place despite the low number of recorded infections in Thailand. As of May 18, the country had slightly over 3,000 recorded cases of Covid-19 and 56 deaths.
Prayut used the decree to impose a nationwide curfew and a two-month lockdown during which very few businesses were allowed to stay open. Even public parks were ordered shut, which forced many people in Bangkok to stay home all day long for weeks on end.
Thousands of people, including foreigners, were detained and fined for breaking newly imposed rules. Even attending private house parties could land locals in trouble.
Critics of the government have called the lockdown excessive, pointing at the severe economic fallout. An estimated seven million people have lost their jobs and many small and medium-sized enterprises are facing the prospect of going out of business for good, especially in the country’s vital tourism and services sectors.
In response, a government spokesperson said that the emergency decree and other measures such as the movement-tracking mobile application remain necessary.
“The number of daily infections fluctuates from none one day to several the next, so the government cannot afford to be complacent,” Narumon Pinyosinwat said. “We have to protect people's lives, first and foremost.”
Opposition leaders have warned, however, that too much centralized power in the hands of a single person could lend itself to abuses. The prime minister’s ability to rule by decree will make it harder for Thailand to recover from the ongoing socioeconomic turmoil, they said.
“As the powers under the decree are centralized with the prime minister, it will be counter-productive to the economic recovery process and compound the already difficult lives the people are living,” Phumtham Wechayachai, an adviser to an opposition party, told a Thai media outlet.