PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – A sub-decree being drafted by the Interior Ministry would give far-reaching powers to the ministry to potentially expand the surveillance of citizens.
It not only calls for the creation of an anti-cybercrime department, but also would allow the government to ramp up video recording as it monitors the city for “illegal activities.” Telephone conversations and mail would also be caught in the surveillance dragnet, which analysts have called a threat to freedom of expression.
According to an August 17 draft, the Interior Ministry would be allowed to monitor mail, phone calls, and faxes, searching for “irregularities relating to national security.”
The exact extent of the proposed increase in surveillance has even been kept secret even from members of the government.
Hun Saroeun, a spokesman at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, told Khmer Times he had not yet been given information about the extent of the surveillance his department would be responsible for.
Analysts say the move gives overly broad powers to the government, and threatens freedom of speech. The law neglects to mention cybercrimes such as password theft, fraud, and phishing, but imposes possible penalties for vague crimes such as “incitement.”
The planned law calls for the creation of an anti-cybercrime department that would “investigate, analyze, and take legal action against incitement, insults, and racism” on the internet. The announcement of the creation of this department comes shortly after two arrests for online posts last month – one of a student who advocated for a “color revolution,” and the other of opposition senator Hong Sok Hour, who posted a photoshopped image of a border treaty with Vietnam.
Opposition protesters have frequently been charged with “incitement” in the past, said So Sorthy of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media.
The mention of incitement in the new law has led to concerns that the department will single out the political opposition.
“As we know ‘incitement’ has been used as the cause to arrest some activists,” said Mr. Sorthy, “so civil society and internet users are afraid that the same clause will be used to silence some online activists.”
Political activists would not be the only ones left vulnerable to monitoring by the department.
“We are not clear about the role of the department and what they are going to monitor,” Mr. So said. “Maybe they will monitor everyone. If so, it will threaten the privacy of internet users in Cambodia and affect freedom of expression.”
The new law would also give new life to the government’s efforts to monitor web traffic.
Until now the government has had no means to monitor which sites people visit. Mr. Saroeun of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications said that his ministry still does not have equipment in place to monitor Internet traffic, and none of the major service providers reported having been contacted by the Interior Ministry regarding surveillance.
If the new law gives the Interior Ministry the authority and means to monitor the web, any internet traffic that the department classifies as endangering “security, public order, or public safety” could result in prison time. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to comment on the sub decree, but said it is still under consideration.
While the cybercrime law was scrapped last year the department has broad powers, many of them similar to the articles in the cybercrime law that caused concerns last year. “Civil society sees this as just a new strategy from the government,” said Mr. So.
Additional reporting by Pav Suy