Telenor has shared sensitive customer data with military since the coup: industry sources

Norwegian telecoms company Telenor, a leading operator in Myanmar serving more than 18 million users, has complied with multiple requests from the military junta for sensitive user data since last year’s coup, according to industry sources.

The junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC) made at least 200 requests to Telenor over the past 12 months for information, including records of calls, call locations and the last known location of a number, a source with inside knowledge of the situation told Myanmar Now.

The company complied with all of these requests, as well as with instructions to shut down specified mobile numbers, the source said.

Myanmar Now has seen a number of the MOTC’s recent requests to Telenor. Some were for the one-month call histories of customers, while others asked for four- to six-month call histories.

Each request included multiple numbers, with some requests numbering in the hundreds. The 200+ requests therefore impacted thousands of Telenor customers.

The ministry cited Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law in its requests to the company. Article 77 of the law allows the ministry to suspend services, intercept communications, and temporarily control services in “emergency situations”.

According to the source, Telenor complied with all of the ministry’s requests despite concerns that they were based on information obtained by the junta through torture.

“We can generally say that the mobile numbers mentioned in the data requests were extracted during the interrogation of political detainees. So we can say that these numbers really are blood-stained,” the source said.

In response to questions from Myanmar Now regarding the company’s sharing of personal data, Telenor confirmed that the company has received directives from the military junta, and implied their compliance with those requests.

“Violating or not complying with directives issued under the existing legal framework, would have severe and completely unacceptable consequences for our employees,” Telenor communications director Cathrine Stang Lund said.

Myanmar Now asked Telenor if they were aware of any individuals arrested, tortured or killed after the company had shared data with the junta, and whether they had taken any steps to protect customers targeted in junta directives. Telenor did not respond.

Violating or not complying with directives issued under the existing legal framework, would have severe and completely unacceptable consequences for our employees – Telenor’s communications director

It is not uncommon for authorities to ask mobile service providers for customers’ data. In Telenor’s 7th Sustainability Briefing, published before the coup, the company disclosed it had received 327 data requests from the authorities between 2014 and December 2020 and complied with 217 of them.

The company wrote that “the data disclosed were related to life-or-death situations such as murder, drug and missing person investigations.”

On February 14, 2021, Telenor stated that they would no longer disclose directive from authorities and Telenor Myanmar did not make a sustainability briefing in 2021.

In most cases, data requests made before the coup were approved by different ministerial departments.

“Now the military doesn’t make any reference to other government departments. Even when it does, it only refers to the Ministry of Home Affairs,” the source said.

Under Myanmar’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, the Ministry of Home Affairs is one of three ministries under the direct control of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Some of the data requests made by the military in the first few weeks after last February’s military coup were related to the phone numbers of well-known actor Kyaw Thu, his wife Shwe Zee Kwat, and popular rock singer Lynn Lynn. All three had been charged with incitement and spreading rumours shortly after the military takeover.

The military authorities also raided the Yangon office of Kyaw Thu’s Free Funeral Service Society, seizing office documents and property.

A mobile number posted by Lynn Lynn on a Facebook page using his real name, Htwe Lynn Ko, on February 8 of last year was shut down by Telenor at the request of the military authorities. Lynn Lynn had been using social media to raise funds for state employees taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement against military rule.

Kyaw Thu and Lynn Lynn have both managed to evade arrest together with their families and are now in exile outside of Myanmar.

Lynn Lynn said he and his wife, popular singer and actress Chit Thu Wai, hid with their two daughters in separate locations until they were able to leave the country.

The couple actively supported the ousted ruling party, the National League for Democracy, during its election campaigns. They are also personally close to the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained by the junta since the coup.

Lin Lin participated in a mass protest in Yangon against the military coup in February last year (Photo: Htwe Lynn Ko/ Facebook)

In 2014, Lynn Lynn was a judge in a national ringtone competition Telenor held before their network launch.

Like many activists and journalists since the coup, Lynn Lynn primarily used Telenor, which was widely trusted, and boycotted mobile operators linked to the military junta.

“I feel sad that an organisation like Telenor, headquartered in the city that awards the Nobel Peace Prize, is sharing personal data with a terrorist military junta,” said Lynn Lynn. 

‘Alarming’ revelation

A spokesperson for activist group Justice for Myanmar called on the Norwegian government to urgently investigate whether Telenor has aided and abetted crimes committed by the military by sharing data, and said it must also ensure remedy for victims.

“It is alarming that Telenor has been sharing call and location data with the terrorist military junta, with full knowledge of how this endangers Myanmar people’s lives,” said Yadanar Maung, the group’s spokesperson.

“The junta has been conducting mass arrests, torture and murder since its attempted coup, and these acts amount to crimes against humanity. By sharing data, Telenor’s cooperation with the junta in its brutal crackdown makes the company complicit in these international crimes,” she said.

Myanmar Now reported last week that Telenor’s sale of its Myanmar subsidiary will be completed by February 15.

Internal documents seen by Myanmar Now from the junta’s Post and Telecommunications Department under the Ministry of Transport and Communications indicate that the buyer will be Investcom Myanmar, a company that has not yet been registered.

The documents state that Shwe Byain Phyu, a military-linked gems and petrol conglomerate, will be the majority owner of Investcom Myanmar.

Shwe Byain Phyu Telecom is a registered company in Myanmar. Until it changed its name on November 3, 2021, it was registered as Shwe Byain Phyu Manufacturing Co Ltd.

The company recently acquired a 49-percent stake in Investcom Pte Ltd, a company created by the Lebanon-based M1 Group that was registered in Singapore after Telenor announced last year that it was selling its Myanmar unit to the M1 Group for $105m.

On January 30, on behalf of the 168 civil society organisations in Myanmar, the Norwegian Forum for Development and Environment sent a letter to the Norwegian prime minister demanding a stop to the sale of Telenor Myanmar to M1 Group and Shwe Byain Phyu on human rights grounds.

Lynn Lynn also appealed for the sale to be called off.

“I expect Telenor Group management would sympathise with the Myanmar public’s struggle for democracy,” he said.

Telenor explained the company’s legal and human rights predicament as a reason for the sale of their Myanmar unit.

“Telenor is facing a conflict between local law and international law, employee safety and human rights principles which makes continued presence in Myanmar impossible for Telenor Group,” Cathrine Stang Lund said.

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