I spent some time in Asia earlier this year, and while people in the US focus on Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Google Hangouts and a variety of other chat apps, the chat app of choice over there was Line. Basically everyone used it. A year ago, Line moved towards true end-to-end encryption. Earlier this year, the company made end-to-end encrypted chats the default, rather than as a user option (Thank you Snowden!).
Good timing. The company has apparently now refused to obey a Thai government demand that it alert the government to anyone insulting the Thai royal family on the messaging app. For years, we’ve written about Thailand’s ridiculous lese majeste laws, which make it a crime to insult the king. As we’ve noted, the law is used as a way to censor and crack down on political opponents. And, of course, with the death of the Thai king last month, there’s been a sudden uptick in Thai officials going after people for supposed lese majeste violations.
But Line is telling the government that it just can’t help out here.
“We do not monitor or block user content. User content is also encrypted, and cannot be viewed by LINE,” the statement sent to DPA said.
Of course, there’s been some controversy in the past over this. Back in 2014, Thailand announced that it was instituting a broad surveillance program to snoop on basically all internet communications for the sake of seeking out and punishing lese majeste violators. A few months later, Thai government officials flat out claimed that this included monitoring Line messages, something that the company flat out denied (though, that may have also inspired the move to encryption). While Thai officials have, at times, even claimed the ability to read encrypted messages, it seemed like that was just idle boasting, rather than a legitimate revelation of surveillance capabilities.
There is one oddity about Line’s response to the Thai government, though:
“We ask the authorities seeking to obtain user data to make official requests through diplomatic channels and have so advised the Thai authorities,” LINE added.
So, uh, if the messages are all end-to-end encrypted and there’s no way for Line to access them to share with any government, why is it asking the Thai government to use diplomatic channels to make an official request?