Published on February 15th, 2021 | by Mahbub Hasan0
What Myanmar residents can do in terms of privacy and digital rights
Myanmar is going through a dire situation. The military has taken over the government and recently they have revoked privacy law. Not only that, but the military Janta suppresses freedom of speech by blocking foreign sites and social media. People are being jailed for sharing information online and journalism.
The Internet is crucial because it can connect people in these critical moments. When you block the media for communication, people become disconnected from their loved ones and the world. They cannot share what is happening with them, what situations are they in and what is happening around their neighborhood. People are going missing each day for taking part in remonstrance against the military Janta.
So what can Myanmar people do to protect their online privacy and connect with the world? How to not get jailed for honest journalism, the duty every journalist does to bring information. Journalism and social media connections are important, and everyone should stand against censorship to prevent people from connecting and exposing the truth about ongoing situations.
Unlike China, censorship is not that hard, and internet surveillance isn’t that advance (yet). Some people can connect to social media and the internet, bypassing restrictions. But the majority is facing issues connecting to the internet. Internet connections in Myanmar are slower than average compared to most developed countries. So using TOR in such internet connection is terrible. TOR is unusable in Myanmar due to slow internet connection, but for those who have high-speed connections (given that those aren’t speed limited or totally disconnected yet) can use TOR to encrypt and anonymize internet activity.
For most users who have slow internet or mobile internet, TOR is very sluggish and can create more problems, often disconnecting from the nodes and slowing down the browser. So VPN is the answer for them. So which VPNs are the best? I have tried a few VPN but I want to suggest those which fulfill three requirements.
- The VPN should run on slow internet connections
- No log, fully private, zero tolerance for privacy breach
- Works on both desktop and mobile
Most Myanmar people do not have the luxury to buy paid subscription plans. For those who can afford, they can buy paid VPNs like Windscribe. Windscribe is an excellent VPN that fulfils all the requirements I mentioned above. Although there are limitations. Windscribe provides 10GB free bandwidth for 30 days. That is sufficient for normal, infrequent usage, but for the current situations it is not. But luckily, Windscribe has the cheapest plans starting with $2/month. That is approximately K2658 (Myanmar Kyat).
But for the rest who need a full free VPN solution that fulfils all the above requirements, they can try Riseup VPN. This service by Riseup.net, created with the soul focus on providing privacy and digital freedom. OpenVPN powered Riseup VPN is the most secure one I could find from most secure VPNs. It is available for Linux, Windows, MacOS, and Android. For iOS users, Riseup provides an OVPN file, which you can load to any OpenVPN client.
- Download Riseup VPN for desktop
- Riseup for Android (Direct, F-droid, and also google play)
- Using Riseup VPN on iOS
No matter what you do, if you are on a non-secure privacy invasive operating system, you might get tracked down by the government. Windows is the most unfit and unsecure operating system for this reason. Microsoft has close communications with the government, and they have agreements to provide user data when ordered by law enforcement. Currently, the supreme court is also under military control and the law is what the military wants. So you cannot trust Microsoft a bit this time. Anytime a journalist using Windows 10 can be tracked down and hunted down by the government.
So the best thing would be to install a secure privacy friendly operating system instead of Windows. Many of the Myanmar residents do not have a MacBook. While MacOS is more secure than Windows, those who have one in Myanmar should be cautious using MacOS. It is still a privacy invasive operating system that sends every kind of usage data, including every time you open an app to Apple. It is not unusual for the Myanmar government to intercept and track data sent by MacOS.
So for those who are doing sensitive jobs and want to protect privacy, and for all the activists I suggest using Tails. It is such an excellent operating system that routes all your traffic through the TOR network so your activity remains private and anonymous no matter what. And since it is based on Debian Linux, it is secure from the core and immune from most of the malware attacks. And the most important thing, it runs without installing. So it is damn easy to use on any device. You just have to burn it on an USB stick and boot from the USB from any computer. It will save your data on the USB and not on any local disk.
But for those who need something straightforward and conventional, and want to use it as a primary operating system, I suggest PureOS for that. Since Tails uses TOR to route any traffic, users in Myanmar may feel sluggish on the internet. So many would find it more usable. Pair it with Windscribe or Riseup VPN, and you will be ready. Since PureOS is based on Debian too, you can install tons of Debian applications and find many pre-built packages for software easily. Just like Tails and other Linux based OS, it is immune to conventional malware attacks. There are other operating systems I would suggest. But I think these are better because they require less internet data to install, maintain and upgrade, which is crucial for Myanmar.
- Installing Tails
- Installing PureOS
- How to install snap apps (for additional apps, but note that in increases data consumption)
Normally I would suggest using specialized devices and custom ROM, but most of the general people of Myanmar wouldn’t want to go with extra hard steps like installing a custom rom. Many device makers do not ship to Myanmar at all, and with the ongoing situation, this is further complex or even impossible to buy one. But you can reduce tracking, at least block enough of the trackers by deactivating activity logging. To do this, follow these steps :
- Go to Google app > Manage Your Google Account > Google Account > Data & personalization and turn off Web and app activity, location history and YouTube history. Also turn off Ad personalization. Or simply follow this article.
- Uninstall or disable as many google apps you can
- Do not use Chrome for browsing the internet, use Firefox Mobile. Also install Privacy Badger addon for Firefox Mobile.
- Go to this link and opt-out from major tracking networks.
- Install Adguard Android app and keep it on.
To keep your data safe, do not use Google apps. Instead, use alternatives which I will discuss in next section. There are some caveats using Android without Google suddenly, which I discussed and provided solutions here.
You should constantly check and manage permissions. Frequently check apps that are using sensitive permissions like location, microphone, call and contact, SMS and camera access.
- Go to Manage Apps option in settings (works on most mobile, since a majority of Myanmar people use Samsung Galaxy devices, this link should come handy)
- Go to permissions then disable sensitive permissions for most applications
- Check which apps are using geolocation and turn them off
In newer versions of Android, you should find more settings to control permissions. On iOS, just search Permission in settings and the rest is quite similar to Android.
Normal day-to-day apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and conventional SMS can get you in jail if you are a journalist or activist in Myanmar. Currently, it is best to ditch these applications. And use apps and services that are privacy friendly. I am going to list a few :
- For chatting, use Telegram. Telegram is like a strong metal wall against any government taking unlawful and invasive action against people. Not only is it a privacy friendly application, which is home for thousands of communities, channels, and contents, it is also one of the most modern and feature rich applications in the world. It is being used by millions for safety and privacy, and also for advanced features that just make life easier.
- For emailing, do not use Gmail, instead use privacy friendly mail services like Tutanota. Unfortunately, free accounts are fairly limited, but it is not a big problem for personal users. For organizations and businesses that require privacy, I suggest using Letter.is. It is an excellent privacy first Email service for business, individual and organizations.
- For sending documents, always use offline editors like LibreOffice and send documents using secure email mentioned above or use specialized file sharing services like Envelope to share files anonymously.
- To download apps, use Aurora store instead of google play store. You can also use F-droid, which contains privacy friendly, open source Android apps. I highly suggest F-droid apps over Aurora because all the apps here are much safer than traditional applications.
- Use Firefox for both desktop and mobile browser. It provides superior privacy and tracking protection. Use these extensions to enhance privacy.
- For a suit of cloud storage, email and other cloud apps, apply for an /e/ Account from here. I highly recommend it as they are one of the biggest privacy first companies.
People should always avoid few apps in current situations. Social media like Facebook can expose your identity to the government as they comply with local laws and regulation. Twitter is fairly safe, but be sure to anonymize yourself and better not use real credentials. Always use VPN to hide location. Avoid Google apps (Gmail, Maps, Search, Google Assistant, etc) at all costs. Government can fully extract chats from WhatsApp so better not use it. You should also turn off your Google assistant and other smart voice assistants because they all collect sensitive data, and have permission to record audio in the background.
Privacy and digital freedom is important. It is a basic right for all humans. To communicate freely, express love for love, hate for hates, oppression, racism and division. Myanmar is going through an extreme situation. Military Junta is trying to take away freedom. People are losing connection, disconnecting from their loved ones. Journalists and activists are in great danger. Not only in Myanmar, but this happens everywhere in the world. We have tried to provide suggestions that may help Myanmar people protect their privacy and continue keeping their rights intact. If you are from Myanmar, share this with the people that may need this. Thanks for reading and may the people have their rights back. Freedom will come, for Myanmar, for everyone in the world.