Norway’s industry minister said on Wednesday that the Norwegian government would not be able to prevent a transfer of user data from Telenor’s Myanmar subsidiary to the country’s military junta following the sale of the unit.
Telecom multinational Telenor Group is majority-owned by the Norwegian government and is under fire from international human rights groups to protect the personal data of its more than 18 million customers in Myanmar—data which is at risk of exposure to the coup regime through the controversial sale.
The Norwegian government’s ownership in Telenor is managed by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries.
“As owner of a telecoms company with a subsidiary in Myanmar we cannot prevent that metadata from ending up in the hands of the military regime,” minister Jan Christian Vestre told the Norwegian parliament, according to a Reuters’ report.
The minister was responding to questions submitted in parliament last week by two Norwegian MPs, Geir Jørgensen and Tage Pettersen, asking the ministry whether the government would use its position as Telenor’s majority owner to prevent the distribution of data and if they had considered putting the sale on hold.
“It is not the government as an owner, but the company’s board and management that must make these decisions,” Vestre is quoted as saying. “With this in mind we have not asked Telenor to postpone the sale,” he added.
Telenor Myanmar is due to be sold to Lebanon’s M1 Group this month. M1, which has been criticised for working with despotic regimes worldwide, will then transfer a controlling stake in the venture to a Myanmar firm named Shwe Byain Phyu, which has strong ties to the military, industry sources have told Myanmar Now. Leaked documents show the final owner of Telenor Myanmar will be Investcom Myanmar, a joint venture between M1 and Shwe Byain Phyu.
The sale will see Telenor hand over the sensitive personal data of its more than 18 million subscribers, including the times, dates and locations of calls and text messages—information the junta can use to target its opponents.
Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) suggested in a statement on Wednesday that Telenor Myanmar’s sale may in fact be illegal under Norwegian law, requiring the government to cancel or pause the process to allow for human rights due diligence to be conducted.
The legal reform group explained that Norway’s Sanctions Act—and the EU Council Regulations implemented under it—bars the sale of “dual-use technology,” or technology that has both civilian and military uses, in Myanmar if there is a risk that it may fall into military hands.
“Telenor’s Myanmar operations are a ‘dual-use technology’ under EU Council Regulations because the infrastructure could be used for military purposes to intercept communications,” FEM’s statement said, emphasising that Shwe Byain Phyu’s reported military ties suggest that the technology may be intended for Myanmar army use.
“Telenor’s position to protect its corporate values and to avoid contravening EU and Norwegian sanctions is laudable. However, there is now a serious risk that Telenor may contravene those same sanctions through selling,” FEM said.
The Myanmar military overthrew the country’s elected civilian government in a coup on February 1 last year. Since then, the junta has killed more than 1,500 people and detained some 12,000 more in an attempt to quell resistance to army rule, according to data compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Myanmar Now has previously reported that even before the sale, the junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC) made hundreds of information requests to Telenor over the past 12 months, including records of calls, call locations and the last known location of a number.
According to a source with inside knowledge of the situation, Telenor complied with all of the ministry’s requests despite concerns that they were based on information obtained by the junta through torture. The source feared that the mobile numbers mentioned in the ministry requests were extracted during the interrogation of political detainees.
A Telenor spokesperson justified the company’s compliance with those requests by saying: “Violating or not complying with directives issued under the existing legal framework, would have severe and completely unacceptable consequences for our employees.”
In the wake of media reports on the role of Investcom Myanmar and Shwe Byain Phyu in the after-sale of Telenor Myanmar, campaign groups and strike committees in Myanmar have urged the company to either stop the sale or refuse the handover of user data to military-linked companies.
On Tuesday, more than 600 civil society organisations sent an open letter to the group’s chief executive officer and president Sigve Brekke to oppose the sale plan. The letter was also addressed to the Norwegian prime minister and parliament as well as to Telenor Group’s investors.
Since Myanmar’s coup, the military regime has ordered internet shutdowns and the blockage of social media platforms and imposed various legal measures to control opposition voices, a course of action which the civil society organisations behind the letter referred to as a “digital coup.”
“If the sale is completed, Telenor would violate not only the trust of its users, but also business and human rights guidelines and international human rights laws,” the letter said.
The Myanmar public widely boycotted local telecoms operator Mytel following the coup due to its direct link to the military, with Telenor frequently touted as one of the better alternative providers in the country for those concerned about digital safety and online communications.
The organisations urged the group’s president to reconsider the decision to sell “to avoid further reputational damage to the company and to prevent the loss of respect for Norway due to its connection to shameful human rights violations in Myanmar.”
Telenor spokespersons previously told media that selling its operation in Myanmar is “the least disadvantageous solution” amid the conflict between local Myanmar laws and the company’s values, international laws, and human rights principles.
A Norwegian civil society network submitted a complaint against Telenor Group’s leadership with police on February 11 urging them to probe into whether the company’s sale plan of its Myanmar subsidiary is in violation of Norway’s laws on “crimes against humanity.”
In an interview with Myanmar Now on the same day, Norwegian judge Hanne Sophie Greve warned that in the worst case scenario, Telenor and the Norwegian authorities could be liable for complicity in crimes against humanity if the personal data of millions of Myanmar users were released to the military regime.
She recommended that Telenor either sell to a responsible buyer not connected to the Myanmar military, or, if a responsible buyer cannot be found, close down their network.
In a statement to Reuters on Wednesday, Telenor said either closing the operation and deleting metadata or deleting the metadata before the transfer of its business to the new owner will expose the company’s employees to significant dangers.