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Thai government to collect iris and face biometrics from Myanmar nationals

Stated goal is healthcare but observers worry about potential for abuse
Thai government to collect iris and face biometrics from Myanmar nationals

Thailand has launched a program to collect the iris and face biometrics of people from Myanmar, in what the government says is an attempt to streamline health services for Thailand’s most mobile population. But given the dynamics at play in both politics and power, the initiative has raised flags among rights groups, who see a potential threat to privacy and human rights.

According to a report from Radio Free Asia, 10,000 Myanmar nationals have already had their biometric data collected as part of the program. The campaign is being led by Thailand’s Department of Disease Control, and its stated core mission is to get a better handle on the allocation and administration of vaccine doses for the transient. The goal is to accumulate a biometric database of a million profiles, linking iris and face biometrics to personal details.

So far, biometric scanning is limited to select provinces, chosen in part for their large communities of Myanmar nationals. But the government has expressed a desire to expand the data collection program further.

Red Cross says scanning is optional, data not shared with authorities

The Thai Red Cross Society, which is supporting the campaign, points out that providing iris or face biometrics is voluntary. Relief and Community Health Bureau Deputy Director Pichit Siriwan, says that while “faces and irises of the undocumented patients who visit health service outlets or displaced persons in the temporary shelters who seek vaccination will be scanned or taken,” then associated with a 13-digit identity number via an app, “one can refuse if one feels not comfortable.” He promises that no one who chooses not to provide biometrics will be denied care.

Still, many Myanmar nationals in Thailand fall into the category of “sensitive groups” – for instance, political dissidents, asylum seekers or migrant workers. And those who are being asked to surrender their biometric data are unsure what, exactly, a foreign government might do with it. An anonymous spokesperson for the Myanmar Internet Project, an organization staging a digital coup, tells Radio Free Asia, “as Myanmar exiles, we are very concerned this kind of data will be shared with different authorities, particularly on the Myanmar side.”

Of course, those with good intentions insist no data will be shared with hostile actors, and that there is no possibility of collaborating with the junta running Myanmar’s own e-ID program. The Red Cross says the data won’t even be shared with state or private agencies.

Police impunity, flimsy data privacy law create hurdles for trust

That said, the organization acknowledges that it would have to share the data if it were court-ordered. Furthermore, there are concerns about the lawful administration of the program, particularly in areas where police are given more leeway in their quest to achieve desired outcomes with migrant populations. And the program for Myanmar nationals is just the start: Thai authorities have proposed a national database for DNA and other biometric information collected from 400,000 cases and 10,000 inmates per year.

Thailand’s official privacy policy is still green. Its sole data privacy law, passed in 2022, is filled with loopholes that critics say make it too weak to provide adequate protection. Most agree that it is not enough.

And then there is historical precedent, which makes some migrants nervous about giving their biometrics to any government. RFA cites a UN case from 2021, which saw nearly a million identities of Rohingya refugees turned over to authorities in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

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