INCOGNITO | If lists could kill

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Last week, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Information Exchange posted on its Facebook page a list of “some of the UP students who became NPA. (Died or Captured)”. Whoever was behind the material made no attempt to prove or substantiate the claim.

Many of those on the list have since come forward to challenge its veracity. While some tried to make light of the matter, it was clear they were all alarmed and angry at the AFP for making such a baseless and irresponsible accusation.

Nothing new here

For those keeping tabs, the episode did not amount to a surprise. After all, this is hardly the first time the current administration has drawn up and published a list of people (and organizations) it accuses of crimes and other wrongdoings.

  • Illegal drugs. Many say it all started with the so-called narco-list wherein the president named over a hundred government officials he claimed were involved in the illegal drug trade. He followed that up with two more. One featured barangay officials and was released in the run-up to the 2018 barangay elections, while the other consisted of another set of elected officials prior to the mid-term elections the following year.
  • Armed rebellion. In November 2019, the Armed Forces labeled 18 groups as fronts for “communist terrorism”, including the local office of Oxfam, an international charity organization. Almost exactly a year later, Duterte also “identified” specific party-list groups as among such legal fronts of the local communist insurgency machinery. These are on top of identical lists released in local communities by elements of the AFP, the police, and vigilante groups, and attempts by their officials to cast similar aspersions on “sympathetic” celebrities and other public figures.
  • Overthrow of government. In 2018, the president’s son, Paolo Duterte, also came out with a list of members of a supposed “Anti-Administration Group”. The Defense secretary actually referred to the list as “fake news”, while presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo dismissed the same as part of Paolo’s “freedom of expression”. The following year, ironically though, it was Panelo himself who brandished another list of personalities the president accused of being out to topple his administration. Panelo whipped out an “Oust-Duterte matrix” featuring journalists and media organizations allegedly involved in the plot.

Apart from the remarkably scant evidence shown to support them, most of the lists have been exposed as being riddled with errors and inaccuracies. Each time one is pointed out, though, the most one could expect from the disclosing agency would be a casual apology before it is immediately swept aside as a non-issue. No one is held to account.

With the highest officials of the land leading by example, it did not take long before it became common practice for other government offices to be just as reckless in their handling of personal data. The Philippine Coast Guard, for instance, saw nothing wrong with releasing lists of seafarers and their personal data, including their negative Covid-19 test results. Just recently, the Philippine National Police was slammed for publishing the names of individuals they basically accused of being rapists and murderers, even with very little evidence on hand.

For some, they argue that it could also be because of the ease state actors are able to come up with these lists, errors and all, knowing fully well they will be able to get away with it, no matter what.

Uncomfortable silence

Indeed, why else would they think otherwise. With all of these things happening on a regular basis, the country’s sole data protection authority — the National Privacy Commission (NPC) — has consistently kept to itself. Its eagerness to opine on emerging issues and the usual pomp that go along with it are nowhere to be seen. No investigations. No probes. Not even a token warning.

This is unfortunate, if not utterly tragic.

If one traces the history of data protection, the trail leads back to the Second World War and the Nazi atrocities. The Nazis systematically abused personal data in order to identify Jews and other minority groups. The tool that made it easy for them to carry out their heinous acts? Lists. Specifically, lists of people and their personal circumstances (e.g., nationality, language, religion, and profession), courtesy of census data. In the ensuing Cold War, it was the Stasi’s — the notorious East German secret police — turn to maintain and exploit lists. Using information they had on everyone, they went on to abduct, torture, and kill those they considered enemies of the State.

That account is eerily similar to what the country is going through today. The danger posed by these lists (especially the first two) is in many ways the same as those generated and used by Europe’s historic villains. Indeed, many people included in the narco-lists or who have been red-tagged by authorities have ended up dead — killed via suspicious law enforcement operations or unresolved extra-judicial killings. This has prompted many to describe the lists as State-sanctioned “kill lists” or “hit lists”.

The difference is that the Europeans saw their dark past as concrete proof of the dangers posed by the unregulated processing of personal data. Fearing the worst is yet to come — because of how technological advancements make data processing so much easier today — they made sure that policy solutions (i.e., data protection laws) and institutions (i.e., data protection authorities) would be around to keep abuses and other questionable state data processing practices in check.

This is not the case for many Filipinos. Here, there is an apparent inability to make that crucial connection between current events and the rationale behind the country’s data protection law and having a government agency specifically charged with implementing it.

There is no sense of urgency. No visible attempt to rein in obvious infractions of other State entities.

As far as the NPC is concerned, changes in the privacy notice of a private company seem to warrant more attention than the lives put at risk by the government’s malicious act of associating people with the country’s long-standing communist insurgency. That’s like saying these lists are harmless and don’t lead to anything sinister or harmful.

It is sad but it is the current state of affairs. People are left on their own to assert their rights over their personal data. And it would seem they would fare better if they were to do so and seek relief directly with the courts.

A meaningful Data Protection Day

This fact is worth mentioning around this time because in a couple of days it will be January 28. It’s “Data Protection Day” and the NPC is once again encouraging Filipinos to join the celebration, pointing out their growing awareness of the importance of data privacy.

Present circumstances appear to demand that concrete actions rather than a neutral state of awareness be the real cause for celebration. And today, instead of celebrating, perhaps calling for increased vigilance among people and the agency promising to give life to the spirit of the (nearly) nine-year old data protection law would be a more suitable alternative.

Governments and their lists can be very dangerous. History has shown us that. If data protection offers neither refuge nor relief from them, then everything it is supposed to stand for would simply ring hollow.

The author is a lawyer, artist, photographer, and privacy advocate. Additional information and queries may be sent to info@privacyphl.com.

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