Contributor Insights Into Cambodia

By Andrea Brás

“Contributor Insights…” is a series of interviews leveraging the experience of Localization Lab contributors in order to provide more insight into the needs, threats, and challenges faced by users living and working in different parts of the world.

In July, Cambodians took to the polls in an election that favored incumbent Prime Minister Hu Sen. The lead up to the general election saw further crackdowns on the CNRP opposition party, civil society organizations, independent press outlets and multiple international NGOs. Recently, Hu Sen’s government announced a new directive against “fake news” which would require websites to register with the country’s information ministry, leading to jail time and fines for users who are found guilty of spreading fake information. This latest move is leading to fears that heightened state surveillance will mean more attacks on freedom of expression.

Localization Lab interviewed Khmer-speaking community members who shared insights into the need for digital security tools that fit the Cambodian context and what developers can do to make their tools more accessible.

How concerned are everyday people about what the current political situation means for their overall freedoms?

It varies a lot. Many people know that the situation is serious but they are afraid to stand up to it, and other people simply don’t care. The older generations have lived through the instability of the past and they are scared about what could happen in the country if more instability arises. The younger generation seems split down the middle: Some are more concerned with their everyday lives than with the human rights situation while others are working to change what is happening.

How common is it for everyday people to be concerned about digital security?

Many Cambodians are not very knowledgeable about the digital world, so it is still not very common for everyday people to think about digital security. In general, the concept of digital security is quite new. People are more familiar with the term ICT, so it is easier for people to understand if “digital security” projects are described as “ICT” projects.

However, more and more people are seeing news articles covering phone tapping, website hacking, Facebook accounts compromised, and recently the PM said “Only 8 Minutes to Locate Cyber Insult on Facebook”.

If they do have digital security and censorship concerns, who are they threat modelling against?

Some people might threat model against hackers or some typical online money scams, but the majority are threat modelling against local authorities and the government. The government announced the creation of a “Cyber War Team” a number of years ago which was tasked with monitoring online activity that caused so-called “instability”. Also, with the support of the Chinese government, they are going to install CCTV cameras all over the capital which is supposed to monitor traffic violations, but some people are not so sure if that is the real reason behind its use.

What are the most common methods that people use to protect their privacy and security online? Are there any non-technical methods being employed (i.e. self-censorship)?

For people who have more awareness of digital security techniques, they try to only use secure tools that can protect their data and also have some personal rules for themselves like always turn off the location on their phones, use strong passwords, never click on suspicious links etc… Sometimes, they stay offline and meet face-to-face.

People have also learned to self-censor. Even if you are not personally scared and decide not to self-censor, your family and friends might pressure you to self-censor because they are scared for you.

What digital security and circumvention tools are most likely to be adopted by Cambodian users and why do you think they are more likely to be adopted?

Tools that are very user friendly are much more likely to be adopted, especially tools that work for people who don’t know how to read or write well in Khmer — so tools that use a lot of icons/symbols and Khmer words that are easy to understand. Something that is similar to Facebook (in terms of ease of use) would work well in the Cambodian context. Cambodian users are very familiar with Facebook and Facebook messenger, it is something they use daily. They are comfortable with the interface. If there were a tool that was similar to Facebook, but secure, open source and didn’t ask for personal info when users joined — Cambodians would use it.

However, no matter what is introduced, if there is no training about new tools, people won’t even know they exist. For example, Signal is not popular at the moment and many people prefer to use popular communication tools. What is the point of using Signal when your friends are staying on different channels?

What are some of the biggest obstacles for adoption of these methods on a wider scale?

There are many obstacles to the adoption of these tools in a Cambodian context. First of all, language is a big problem. Young Cambodians are really the only ones who can understand English, so when a tool is only in English it takes a long time for people to adopt the technology. You can’t just put these tools out there and hope people will catch on by themselves because understanding everything on their own is just impossible.

Another issue concerns people who can’t read or write. There is still a sector of the population with high rates of illiteracy, so it is difficult for people to use digital security tools and be safe when they can’t understand the interface. Simply put — if people can’t read, they really can’t use the tools securely.

The terminology used in the tools can also be a pain because it often doesn’t make sense when translated into Khmer. The tools really need to be localized not just translated directly.

The last issue concerns overall adoption. Many people see digital security as something that is only for activists or for frontline defenders. They don’t understand that digital security is important for everyone. There needs to be better messaging so people understand that digital security threats can affect anyone.

What can developers do to make these tools more accessible for people who can’t read or write?

Developers should create interfaces that are less complex with a lot of easy to understand visuals. Perhaps voice narration functions which are available in local languages could be useful for certain tools. Quick start pop-up screens with animations might be helpful for first time users.

In your estimate, what sector of the population is currently benefiting from the use of these tools? How can developers reach the other people in need?

At this moment, I think that only people who are activists or human rights defenders are benefiting from the use of these tools. Perhaps a small number of people who have direct contact with those human rights defenders (like their immediate family) are benefiting as well.

There is a need to really identify the people at risk, provide more training, practice and encouragement to use the tools. This sounds simple, but it is hard to do.

Developers can reach more people by making these tools easier to use, localizing them more and, if possible, working closer with the people who deal directly with users. For a small country like Cambodia, it is very hard to get in touch with developers and, the truth is, we need these tools the most.