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Cambodia delays internet spy system because it can’t get the equipment needed

The government of Cambodia has delayed implementation of its National Internet Gateway – because it is yet to acquire the equipment needed to operate the service.

The Gateway was announced in February 2021 and quickly attracted criticism on the basis its enabling legislation gives the regime – which has banned opposition parties from contesting elections – the power to force all internet traffic to or from the country, and within its borders, to pass through the Gateway. Human rights organisations, big tech, and the United Nations all interpreted the law as conferring broad surveillance powers that have the potential to be employed as a means to suppress free speech and political opposition.

Cambodia’s government yesterday rejected that analysis of the Gateway’s purpose.

Later in the day, Telecommunications Ministry spokesperson Meas Po told local media outlet Voice of Democracy the Gateway’s implementation has been delayed “Because it is an activity whenever we implement it, we have to prepare to install and order equipment in order to prepare and create the Gateway. And we have to give licenses to any company that the government understands that has the ability to create the Gateway.” Po added that COVID-19 has contributed to implementation delays.

Japanese outlet Nikkei quoted another Ministry spokesperson, So Visothy, as saying the delay was “due to the disruption caused by the spreading of COVID-19 pandemic.”

Among the arguments the government has used to justify the Gateway is that it will improve social order and national security.

We are now being asked to believe that a year after announcing the Gateway, and those goals, the government has not yet even ordered the necessary equipment and licences to operate it. A reminder: the likes of Cisco and Juniper have warned buyers of long waiting periods for some products, so unless Cambodia’s rulers missed a memo they’ve had plenty of notice to get their orders in early for networking kit.

As it happens, in the last year the Ministry has announced a project that saw officials test software and equipment from the UK, Germany, and South Korea, for the purposes of monitoring phone call quality. Officials even visited provincial capitals to report on service quality.

And evidently, during the same period, nothing at all was happening to build the vaunted Gateway.

If you accept the COVID delay argument, The Register has a temple at Angkor Wat to sell you. The temple has a lovely bridge that would make a lovely spot from which to read the many stories and studies that criticize the Gateway.

Ministry spokespeople have said they’ll eventually reveal when the Gateway will be implemented. The Register will keep watching this one for the human rights implications – and because a project that fails to complete designs or order kit for a whole year has all the hallmarks of an epic failure well worth following. ®