In Thailand, a Free-Money Program Is Also a Data Experiment
5 min read
fairly difficult
The government is funneling assistance to the poor via cash cards—a convenient way to monitor spending despite privacy concerns.

Illustration: Michelle Kwon for Bloomberg Businessweek Illustration: Michelle Kwon for Bloomberg Businessweek

Like many countries, Thailand is giving citizens cash transfers to help them ride out the coronavirus pandemic. But the military-backed government that rules the country is getting something potentially valuable in return: a huge volume of data on how millions of Thais spend their money.

Since 2017 Thailand has funneled assistance to its poorest citizens via so-called cash cards that are automatically loaded with a small amount of money each month. The cards are a more sophisticated version of the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards used to distribute food aid in the U.S., but linked to a much broader range of activities. While the government says the information is needed to formulate better policies, privacy advocates are concerned—not least because the number of Thais who use the cards, about 14 million, is set to climb as more people thrown out of work by the Covid-19 pandemic sign up for assistance.

"Any time you're talking about the government's collection and use of personal data, particularly a large volume of it, the risks are always higher," says David Hoffman, a cybersecurity expert at Duke University who also chairs the National Security Agency's advisory panel on privacy. "The dystopian possibility," he says, is "that you get a tremendous view into individual citizens that then could be used for a variety of government law enforcement purposes, particularly around the area of silencing social dissent."

That's far from a theoretical problem in Thailand. The country has been rocked in recent months by unprecedented protests against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former general who led a 2014 coup d'etat, as well as against the monarchy, which has traditionally been treated as off-limits for criticism. Some activists calling for greater freedoms have been…
Randy Thanthong-Knight
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