MANILA, Philippines — “There are equally important public values that must be balanced in this forum: national security, privacy, freedom of the press, and the public’s right to know.” Malou Mangahas, Executive Director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), shared this sentiment as she spoke before an audience keen on understanding the surveillance landscape of the Philippines. The venue: a forum on local privacy and surveillance issues co-organized by the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), the Information and Communications Technology Office of the Department of Science and Technology (ICTO-DOST), and Internet Society – Philippines (ISOC-PH), held recently at the Audio Visual Room, DOST-ICT Office last 18 February 2015.
The gathering drew in a sizeable audience that effectively made up a representative sample of the various societal actors, ranging from non-profit organizations, private sector institutions, the academe, and government agencies, including those directly engaged in state-sponsored surveillance such as the Intelligence Services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) and the Philippine National Police’s Anti-Cybercrime Group (PNP-ACG).
Designed mainly as a symposium on national security, privacy rights, and public policy, the event officially carried the theme “Locating Human Rights in Surveillance Policy and Practice: A Philippine Workshop”. It featured talks taking up the technical bases of communications surveillance (Fernando Contreras, President/CEO of Imperium Technologies), the prevailing legal regime on the subject (Marlon Tonson, legal counsel of the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance), as well as the current trends and issues in the local arena (Al Alegre, executive director of FMA). These were followed by reaction pieces delivered by invited resource persons like Ms. Mangahas and Doris Dinorog Obena (Akbayan) as representatives of civil society, and Roy Ibay, legal counsel of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company, on behalf of the private sector. A general overview of the developments in the international stage was also outlined by Jamael Jacob, FMA’s current policy and legal advisor.
All throughout the sessions, the interaction between the speakers and the audience went on to further enrich the quality of the lively discussions. Reactions were rife with queries on the ability of telcos to collect and store their customers’ information, including public access to such data. Some were concerned with the inevitable overlaps between privacy and other legitimate interests such as state efforts to curb terrorism and cybercrimes, including online child pornography.
At the program’s conclusion, the participants agreed that several key steps were worth pursuing in its wake. One was to initiate more dialogues with telecommunication companies regarding their privacy policies and end user agreements, and the legal community in general, to pave the way for critical capacity-building activities that properly inform them of the subject and its intricacies. A more pronounced call for the establishment of the National Privacy Commission and implementation of the Data Privacy Act was also seen as a necessary collective measure. Finally, the participants were unanimous in supporting the campaign for the appointment by the United Nations of a Special Rapporteur on Privacy, whom they believe can make a more substantial contribution to the promotion of privacy rights on a global scale.
Regarding the call for balancing of competing public values involved in the privacy and surveillance discourse, it was perhaps Al Alegre, FMA executive director, who summed up the sentiment that prevailed throughout the forum. “Any interference with the right to privacy must be necessary and proportionate to the pursuance of (other) legitimate aims and (should) not impair the essence of the right,” he declared.
Indeed, privacy in this digital age is under threat from numerous interests all claiming to be of superior value. Thus, effective protection for this great enabler of other fundamental rights has never been more relevant, and has never been this urgent.