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Than was in a remote corner of eastern Burma on 10 March when her mobile phone started beeping with distressing news that police were violently dispersing students protesting against a controversial education bill.
The youth activist was some 500 kilometres away on a work trip when the crackdown began in Letpadan, a small town in Pegu, a region adjacent to Rangoon. Yet with friends and fellow activists from three different Viber groups sharing real time pictures and updates, Than, who requested anonymity, was able to follow the events as they unfolded.
“The overwhelming emotion was of concern. Quite a few of the people at the protest site are like brothers and sisters to us. We started calling everyone but the phone lines were bad. We were also worried they weren’t secure,” Than, 28, recalled in a quiet cafe in suburban Rangoon.
“Viber was the only way to keep abreast of what was going on and advise those at the scene what to do and what not to do,” she said.
Founded in 2010 by four Israelis, Viber is lesser known compared to global behemoths Facebook and WhatsApp, but the smartphone messaging application is revolutionising the way activists and aid workers communicate, advocate and campaign in Burma, a country that for decades kept a tight lid on communications and has punitive laws that could be used to stifle dissent.
Globally, 236 million people use Viber actively every month, of which almost 12 million are from Burma, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer Mark Hardy told Myanmar Now in an email interview.
This lags behind global usage figures from other apps – 800 million for WhatsApp, 600 million for Facebook Chat, 500 million for WeChat and 300 million for Skype.
Still, considering Burma’s poor information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and that no commercial telecoms operators existed until a year ago, Viber’s ubiquity in Burma is undeniable. A 2014 On Device study on Burma’s connectivity found 79 percent of 577 mobile Web users – more than three out of four – use Viber, eclipsing Facebook (one out of four or 27 percent).
Part of Viber’s appeal is ease of use, said David Madden, founder of Phandeeyar, a non-profit that brings together the tech community, civil society and independent media and supports digital start-ups.
A Viber account can be set up with a phone number, unlike Facebook where an e-mail address is needed, he said.
“You can be on Viber if you have a phone or have access to a phone,” he told Myanmar Now in Phandeeyar’s office in downtown Yangon with sweeping views of the city’s skyline.
“Viber also works remarkably well in low-bandwidth environments like Myanmar. It seems to hold the connection better than other competing services and manages file transfers pretty efficiently,” he added.
Than, who started using Viber three years ago, said: “Even in places where we cannot open Facebook, like Chin State [in western Burma], you can still use Viber.”
ICT experts, however, warn that activists like Than are at risk from laws that impose harsh penalties on those deemed to undermine state security. Most messaging apps are also not secure, exposing users to snooping from governments and attacks from hackers, they say.
These concerns have heightened after emails released by Wikileaks on 8 July included correspondences between a Burmese company claiming to write on behalf of the Ministry of Defence and the Hacking Team, an Italian spyware company, as first reported by The Irrawaddy news outlet.
GROWTH IN MOBILE USAGE
Viber’s ascent in Burma reflects the explosive growth in mobile phone users. According to Ericsson’s latest Mobility Report, Burma’s mobile subscription growth is second only to India and China, adding 5 million new subscribers compared to the previous quarter.
Youths have been a main driver of social media and mobile phone usage globally and half of the country’s 51 million population is under 27 years of age.
There are now at least 18.1 million SIM cards in active use, according to data compiled by Reuters. In contrast, there were only 1.3 million mobile subscribers in 2011, said the International Telecommunications Union, which measures various indicators of connectivity.
State-run operator Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) remains the dominant player but many credit the growth to Telenor and Ooredoo, two foreign mobile companies allowed to begin operations in the country last year.
When MPT first launched mobile services in 2000, a SIM card cost over US$5,000 on the black market, prohibitively expensive in the impoverished Southeast Asian country. The price had dropped to about $250 by 2013, a time most interviewees said they started using Viber.
Last August, Qatar’s Ooredoo started selling SIM cards for just $1.50.
“With the emergence of low-end android phones for less than one lakh (US$100), you now see street vendors, bus conductors and even trishaw guys using mobile phones because customers can call them. The device is becoming a source of income. The landscape has changed entirely from mobile phones being a luxury device to a mandatory everyday device,” said Arkar, 23, a developer with local company NEX, whose app Hush lets users posts their musings anonymously.
“The chair that you’re sitting on was ordered through Viber. I’ve never met the guy,” added Ye Myat Min, NEX’s 24-year-old CEO who started using Viber when he was studying in Singapore a few years ago. His mother would call him through Viber.
Viber’s biggest impact may be on aid workers and activists who in the past struggled to stay in touch with each other, let alone organise campaigns and events. These are now done using Viber, followed by Facebook and e-mail, according to almost a dozen activists Myanmar Now spoke to.
“Viber is especially useful when you have people in your network who live outside Yangon and can’t come to Yangon for meetings,” said Honey Lwin from Myanmar Network Organization for Free and Fair Elections (MYNFREL), an elections watchdog.
Thein Min Soe from Youth Development Network, which provides civic education classes, said such tools are the main difference between now and when his activism began in 2008. Then, the only ways to communicate were by landline or post and it was almost impossible to link like-minded people and groups in different parts of Myanmar. He discovered Viber in 2012.
“We found that it’s more cost-effective to make calls using Viber than mobile phones. And it feels easier and quicker to send photos and information via Viber that you can’t send by e-mail,” he said.
Viber was born after Talmon Marco, now CEO of the company and formerly a technologist in the Israeli army, was searching for ways to stay in touch with his girlfriend living half the world away, according to the company’s CMO Hardy. Marco was in New York and his girlfriend – now wife – was in Hong Kong.
Finding existing apps wanting, Marco and three others built Viber, which stands for “sending good Vibes,” said Hardy.
In February 2014, the Cyprus-registered company was acquired by Japan’s e-commerce giant Rakuten for US$900 million.
In 2014, it released Public Chats, a new feature that allows users to follow their favourite celebrities, personalities and brands. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, joined Viber on 26 January and now has over 850,000 followers. Burmese politicians have yet to follow suit.
For all Viber’s attractions, however, experts caution it is not a secure form of communication.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US based non-governmental organisation, scored the security of various methods of communication on a scale of 1 to 7 based on factors such as the ability to verify contacts, recent code audits, and encryption of messages.
Viber and Skype scored one out of a possible seven points. Facebook Chat and Whatsapp scored two.
“There is a huge problem in that activists do not understand how the government can track their information posted online,” Daniel Arnaudo, a senior research fellow with University of Washington told Myanmar Now via e-mail.
“Neither application [Viber and Facebook] is a secure channel for information sharing either from interception by Myanmar’s government or other third parties,” said Arnaudo, who specialises in Internet governance, cyber security and technology for development.
Viber’s Hardy says the company takes security very seriously. Messages are not saved in servers and deleted after being delivered to users, he said.
“The only time we ever save a message is when a recipient isn’t available to receive the message, at which point it is stored in a secure manner until such time that it is delivered, or for two weeks, whichever is sooner,” he told Myanmar Now.
Lucy Purdon, ICT programme manager for the London-based Institute for Human Rights and Business, said Burma is at “a very important crossroads”.
“With all of these new mobile and Internet services it’s important that activists know what these services do, what kind of information is collected by the companies and what is shared by companies and how to protect their own information,” she said during a visit to the country in June.
Laws with repressive provisions, frequently used by the previous military government against critics, compound security concerns over applications such as Viber.
In 2008, popular blogger Nay Phone Latt, whose blogs during the September 2007 monk uprising informed the outside world of events in secretive Burma, was sentenced to 20 years and six months in prison, including 15 years for violating the Electronic Transactions Law, which Myanmar’s former military junta imposed in 2004 to counter the growing influence of the Internet.
Other prominent activists, including comedian Zarganar and former student leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, were also sentenced under the law.
The law gives the government the ability to prosecute people for “any act detrimental to the security of the state or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquillity or national solidarity or national economy or national culture”.
Meanwhile, the Computer Science Development Law of 1996 prohibits “obtaining or sending and distributing any information of State secret relevant to State security, prevalence of law and order and community peace”.
“These [provisions] are still on the books and it is important to understand that they could be rewritten, scaled back, or re-enforced,” said Arnaudo.
Andrea Calderaro, research fellow at the Centre for Internet and Human Rights, sounded a similar note of caution.
“The definition of cybercrime is still too broad. Moreover, the big topic at the moment is how the new Electronics Transactions Law would be drafted, but nobody knows,” Calderaro, an expert on Internet, cyber security and digital rights, told Myanmar Now in a phone interview.
He also pointed out the gaps in the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which governs the development of telecommunications sector including supervising the services, network facilities and equipment which require license for “national peace and tranquility and for public security”.
“It says very little about how the mobile sector should respect human rights issues, namely online freedom of expression and right of privacy. That is a major problem because we then have to go back to the mobile operators and check how they operate in respect of human rights and corporate social responsibilities,” he said.
Norway’s Telenor says it is committed to respecting human rights. This correspondent could not find a similar statement from Ooredoo but the company says it has embarked on numerous projects where it offers, “underserved communities the opportunity to access vital information and services, such as banking, healthcare and education, via their mobile phone”.
Still, Telenor has been criticised for shutting down services during political turmoil in Thailand and Ooredoo has been accused of filtering and blocking content in Qatar.
Burma’s upcoming general election on 8 November has raised the stakes further.
“It is entirely possible that surveillance could increase around the election, particularly on opposition parties, activists and journalists,” said Purdon from Institute for Human Rights and Business.
“Civil society should now be exploring ways to protect their own data, for example using strong account passwords and not sharing these passwords with others,” she added.
Activists share these concerns but say there are no alternatives.
“Of course we’re worried,” laughed Than. “But unless applications that could offer better security and are still usable in a low-bandwidth settings emerge, we would continue to use Viber,” she said. “Besides, if [the government] wants to arrest us, they will do so regardless.”