Telenor has been warned that the sale of its Myanmar business will endanger the Norwegian telecoms company’s 18mn customers in the south-east Asian nation by putting their personal data within reach of the junta.
A Telenor customer in Myanmar has filed a complaint with Norway’s data protection authority, urging the watchdog to probe the company’s planned sale of the business to Lebanon’s M1 Group and ensure it does not infringe his rights under the country’s data protection law.
“If the junta get hold of this data, they can easily target my family members, my friends and my colleagues,” the complainant, an activist living in hiding whose name was redacted from the complaint, told the Financial Times. “No one is safe any more if they are sharing this data.”
The complaint was submitted to Norway’s data protection authority on Monday by Sands, a law firm supported by the Netherlands-based Center for Research on Multinational Corporations, the same group that lodged a complaint with the OECD in July claiming that Telenor had “irresponsibly disengaged” from Myanmar.
The regulatory challenge is the latest hitch to exiting the conflict-ridden country for Telenor, which wrote off its investment in Myanmar after last year’s coup, then said it would sell its local operations after it was pressured by the military regime to install eavesdropping equipment.
But the Norwegian state-owned company has struggled to complete the sale after being caught between the regime and campaigners worried about the impact of the telecom’s departure on human rights.
Alongside M1, Shwe Byain Phyu, a Myanmar conglomerate with ties to the military, is set to become a co-owner of the local business after the Telenor exits, as first reported by Reuters, and confirmed to the FT by two people with knowledge of the situation.
The Myanmar conglomerate emerged as a co-investor after the regime delayed approving the sale last year, saying it wanted a local group involved.
Justice for Myanmar, a leading advocacy group, separately urged Norway’s government this week to block Telenor Myanmar’s sale, warning that it would be “complicit with [the] terrorist junta ”.
Telenor told the FT that none of its data from Myanmar was handled in Norway or the EU and that Norwegian data protection regulation did not apply to it.
“The customer data of Telenor Myanmar’s customers is handled locally by Telenor Myanmar in compliance with regulatory obligations,” the company said. “Telenor Group does not accordingly exercise any control over the handling of customer data by Telenor Myanmar.”
According to local human rights groups, junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing’s troops have killed more than 1,500 people, including children and family members of regime opponents, since toppling the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi a year ago, and have arrested more than 12,000 . Police routinely seize detainees’ phones during street searches and interrogations to access personal information.
Telenor described the situation in Myanmar as “concerning” and said that it was “in a conflict between local laws on the one hand and our values, international law and human rights principles on the other”. When asked about Shwe Byain Phyu’s involvement, Telenor declined to comment on what it called “rumors and speculation”.
“In such a difficult and volatile security situation, there are no simple solutions,” the company said. “We have to balance several difficult considerations and have come to the conclusion that a sale is the least detrimental solution for our employees, customers and the community.”
Telenor added that human rights, privacy and the safety of employees had been “key considerations” in the sale process.
Myanmar’s military spokesperson and Shwe Byain Phyu did not respond to requests for comment.