THE seminar-workshop gathered representatives from the Office of the President, the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Privacy Commission, human rights and civil society groups, the academe and, perhaps tellingly, someone from the staff of Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief known for his links to the intelligence community.
The topic that was of common interest to such a diverse group was surveillance, and the development of a public policy that balances the security needs of the state against individual rights to privacy.
Setting the tone for the day-long seminar was Ivy Patdu, the newly appointed deputy commissioner of the National Privacy Commission, who quoted a dissenting opinion from US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
The warning seems particularly relevant these days as the government pushes to relax banking secrecy and wiretapping laws in the name of its aggressive war on illegal drugs.
A good starting point in the examination of surveillance policies is “The State of Privacy Philippines,” a report prepared by the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) and its partner, Privacy International.
The study offers some fairly updated baseline data.
With a population of more than 100 million people, the Philippines had a national internet penetration figure of about 40 percent in 2014, the study notes, citing statistics from internetlivestats.com. Overall, 45 million people are active Internet users, with 32 million of these gaining access through mobile devices.
Citing a report by Global Web Index, the study notes that the country ranks first in terms of average number of hours–6.3 hours–spent using the internet per day, using a laptop or desktop. When access is through a mobile device, Filipinos spend on average 3.3 hours online per day, which is higher than the global median of 2.7 hours.
At the same time, the country’s average internet connection speed of 2.5Mbps is well below the global average of 4.5Mbps.
While there is no hard data to support this, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that one reason we are online longer than anybody else is that with our slow connection speeds, we simply need more time to download the same volume of data that others do.
Our privacy of correspondence is protected by a handful of laws and several international human rights agreements to which the Philippines is a signatory.
Under the Civil Code of the Philippines (RA 386 (1949), anyone who “obstructs, defeats, violates or in any manner impedes or impairs” the privacy of communication and correspondence is liable for damages.
The Revised Penal Code punishes any person who seizes the papers or letters of another ito discover his or her secrets, while the Electronics Engineering Law of 2004 (RA 9292) makes it punishable for any registered electronics engineer or technician to engage in “illegal wire-tapping, cloning, hacking, cracking, piracy or other forms of unauthorized and malicious electronic eavesdropping or the use of any electronic devices in violation of the privacy of another or in disregard of the privilege of private communications.”
The Anti-Wiretapping Act of 1965 prohibits and penalizes wire tapping done by any person to secretly overhear, intercept, or record any private communication or spoken word of another person or persons without the authorization of all the parties to the communication or a court order in the case of specific crimes, such as treason, espionage, rebellion, sedition and kidnapping. Those who knowingly possess, replay, or communicate recordings of wiretapped communications, as well as those who aid or permit wiretapping, are likewise held liable.
On the other hand, other laws such as the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012 (RA 9208) and the Human Security Act of 2007 (RA 9372) allow surveillance by the state when certain crimes are involved, such as human trafficking and terrorism.
The Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009 requires private internet service providers or ISPs to monitor traffic on their servers and to notify law enforcement agencies if any form of child pornography is being committed on these servers.
Moreover, the Electronic Commerce Act of 2000 and subsequent regulations based on this law require telecommunications providers to retain certain forms of electronic data that pass through their networks.
Among government agencies, those with surveillance powers are the National Security Council, the Office of the National Security Adviser, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, the National Intelligence Committee, the National Intelligence Board, the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police, and the National Bureau of Investigation.
Among the tools they are said to have access to are devices to intercept mobile phone traffic and tracking the movement of mobile phone users (IMSI catchers), intrusion malware tools, and software tools for large-scale social media analysis.
The report is understandably nebulous, particularly on these tools, given the lack of transparency in government surveillance initiatives. Still, it’s a good starting point for a national discussion on privacy rights, and what constitutes acceptable state intrusion—if there is such a thing–on these rights for the sake of public safety. Chin Wong
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