BANGKOK (Reuters) – A Thai minister has admitted the country is using surveillance software to track individuals in cases involving national security or drugs, amid revelations that the phones of government critics had been hacked into the country. using Israeli-made Pegasus spyware.
Digital Economy and Society Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn told parliament on Tuesday evening that he was aware that Thai authorities were using spyware in “limited” cases, but did not specify which government agency was using it. such software, what program was used or what people were targeted.
Human rights groups have accused successive Thai governments of using broad definitions of national security as a pretext to prosecute or suppress the activities of their main rivals.
A joint investigation by Thai human rights group iLaw, Southeast Asian internet watchdog Digital Reach and Toronto-based Citizen Lab on Monday found use of the spyware Pegasus on at least 30 government reviews between October 2020 and November 2021.
The investigation followed a massive alert from Apple Inc. in November telling thousands of users of its iPhones, including in Thailand, that they were being targeted by “state-sponsored attackers”.
Chaiwut did not name Pegasus but said he was aware of the use of spyware to “eavesdrop on or access a cell phone to view the screen, monitor conversations and messages”. But he added that his department did not have the legal authority to use such software and did not specify which government agency did.
“It’s used for national security or drug issues. If you have to arrest a drug dealer, you have to listen to find where the gout would be,” he said.
“I understand that there has been such use but it is very limited and only in special cases.”
His ministry has previously denied any knowledge of the matter.
The most recent alleged use of the spyware comes after a youth-led movement emerged in late 2020 that challenged the country’s powerful monarchy and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government. More than 1,800 people have faced security-related charges since the movement began.
Thai police denied in a statement that Pegasus was used for surveillance or invasion of privacy.
Pegasus has been used by governments to spy on journalists, activists and dissidents and the Israeli company behind it, NSO Group, has been sued by Apple and placed on a US trade blacklist.
NSO Group did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters on Monday or Wednesday.
(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor)