SIM Card Registration and other means of mass surveillance
Ferdinand Marcos Jr signed into law the SIM Card Registration in October this year. This is Marcos’ first law and proof that his priority lies in strengthening the reactionary state machinery for mass surveillance. The law erodes privacy and anonymity protections in telecommunications and weakens the people’s rights to secure communications. It endangers basic rights to free expression, opinion and expression of thoughts, as well as free press and free association.
From the onset, human rights and digital rights advocates, journalists and progressives have expressed opposition to the SIM card registration. They are aware that this will only be used to further erase what is left of the limited democratic space. It will be part of the state’s arsenal of intelligence and surveillance to violently suppress individuals, organizations and mass movements that struggle for their rights and well-being and are actively fighting to change the current system. In addition, it will deprive a large part of the population to telecommunications services completely, especially the toiling masses who have no or limited access to this service.
It is therefore important for the Filipino people, especially the toiling masses, to fight not only against mandatory registration of SIM cards, but also other state attacks on privacy and anonymity. These measures need to be exposed as part and parcel of establishing a surveillance state. The resistance against it is an extension of the fight for democratic rights that are now being eroded by the state. There are many circumstances that the people’s right to privacy and anonymity are the only remaining protection against the violent response of reaction.
I. What is the SIM Card Registration and what are its effects to the people’s rights?
The SIM Card Registration Act or Republic Act 11934 was enacted on October 10, 2022 by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The law will be enforced starting on December 27, 2022. Under the law, ID cards or other identification documents will be required to buy a SIM card. SIM cards that are already in use will have to be registered within 180 days. Registration requires the user to provide personal information such as name, complete address, gender and birthdate. Users are also obliged to present a valid ID with a photo. In essence, the SIM card will be attached to the identity and life of its user.
All information will be handled by telecommunication companies and will be submitted to the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) quarterly, including names and other details of all authorized SIM card sellers and agents.
Anyone who violates these requirements will be penalized. Violators may be fined ₱100,000 to ₱4 million and six months to two years of detention.
Not a solution to cybercrime
To make the law acceptable and hide its true purpose, the state claims that its objective is to stop criminals behind text scams, phishing and identity theft and other cybercrime.
In truth, SIM card registration is ineffective in deterring cybercrime. A study of the Global System for Mobile Communications in April 2021 showed that in 157 countries where the same law is implemented, there has been no advantage against cybercrime. The Global System for Mobile Communications is an organization of 750 mobile operators in the world.
In Mexico, a similar law was junked after only three years because it had no significant impact in restraining, investigation and punishment on crimes related to cybercommunications. In Pakistan, the same law has only strengthened the black market of registered SIM cards and increased the cases of identity theft.
In Indonesia, it was announced just in September that crimes were not prevented by SIM card registration, but instead the database became an attractive target of cybercriminals. The details of 1.3 billion SIM cards were compromised. Similar laws did not pass in Canada, the Czech Republic, Ireland and the Netherlands due to serious issues related to the people’s privacy.
In the Philippines, it is ironic that the state is using “fighting cybercrime” as an excuse whereas its own forces are perpetrators of crimes in the cyberspace. In 2021, reports from Qurium Media which were confirmed by CERT-PH showed that the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Department of Science and Technology were involved in DDOs attacks on alternative media websites. They have repeatedly attacked the CPP website, and even the websites of the traditional media.
Also, the most violent “trolls” on social media that lodges threats and indecent comments are those funded by the government. The AFP and PNP, in partnership with the NTF-Elcac and its paid hacks, are the most rabid spreaders of disinformation, misinformation, terror- and red-tagging.
Worse, police and AFP directly threaten activists and progressives through text using illegally-obtained cellphone numbers. During the last elections, the winning camp used these numbers to spread lies against the opposition.
Instead of tightening laws and policies to protect people’s right to privacy and anonymity, in defense of cybercrime, the state further removes these with the aim of strengthening its capacity for state mass surveillance.
Discrimination and a burden to the toiling masses
Millions of Filipinos will lose access to easy and quick communications once the mandatory SIM card registration is implemented. In 2018, an estimated 71 million Globe subscribers and 58 million Smart subscribers were prepaid users or were using unregistered SIM cards. They were a large majority of Globe’s 74 million total subscribers and Smart’s 60 million. Once their unregistered SIMs are deactivated, it will hard for them to reactivate the service. Apart from the hassle and extra costs, the registration process is very complicated.
Buying a new SIM card will also become difficult, as apart from the complicated registration, buyers will need to present a valid ID. SIM card retail centers will be limited. If it is difficult now to buy a SIM card in the countryside, what more as the state will further restrict authorized agents and retailers that are often located in the centers where there is sufficient facilities for the verification of the submitted identifications.
In an African study, SIM card registration has proven to intensify discrimination and exclusion of large parts of the population who lack resources and are far from urban centers to register. Privacy International reports that a million people in South Africa had their communications cut because they have difficulty registering their pre-paid SIM cards. In Zimbabwe, up to 2 million and in Kenya, 1.2 million, have lost access to telecommunication services, and the connections and information associated with it.
In violation of rights
The required submission of personal details to the state and private entities violates the right to private communications. It will be easier for the state and large private corporations to acquire, gather and use the personal details of all internet and cellphone users. This includes text and social media messages, as well as location using geo-tagging, and other information put on the cellphone. Such information can be used in profiling of targets both for suppression and commercial advertisement.
Removing anonymity in telecommunications will inhibit the people from expressing their views or opinions that is contrary to or critical of the state or those in power. This is more dangerous in places and situations where the police and the military rule.
SIM card registration will perpetuate the culture of fear and silence. It will facilitate the spread of government corruption, police and military crimes, violation of human rights and international humanitarian law, corporate abuse, environmental destruction and other wrongdoings and crimes by the abusive powerful. This is because people will become hesitant to report abuse, including the victims of abuse themselves, knowing that they can be traced as the source of the information and thus can be retaliated against.
II. What is the right to privacy and why should it be defended?
Privacy is a human right that refers to the right of an individual or group to choose with whom to disclose or share their personal and individual information. It is essential to the protection of human dignity and serves as the foundation of other rights.
In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to privacy is under Article 12 which states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
Essentially, this is what is also stated in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966.
The right to privacy covers the protection of personal data regarding health status, finances, gender, legal status, political ideologies and others. It protects individuals against discrimination, possible hate crimes and political repression.
Protecting online privacy and data associated with it (example of these are posts, pictures and videos on Facebook and Twitter, and search activity on Google) is a growing field of resistance. Fighting surveillance and data gathering of big internet companies from its users is also a wide front. Currently, digital rights activists push to limit the powers of these companies to gather such data, and for individuals to have the right to protect their privacy and be “forgotten” or to have their data erased, if they so wish.
Fundamental people’s rights such as free thinking, religion, expression and press freedom are all reliant on the right to privacy. It is especially important that they assert these rights at a time when the culture of impunity reigns. Protection of privacy and anonymity is crucial at a time when the state can use a simple comment against the ruling faction as a pretext for an attack.
There is a type of privacy where people only want to hide their identity but not their actions. This is called anonymity. Anyone has the inherent right to anonymity, same as they have the right to privacy. No one can force an individual or group who acted on something to expose their identity if do not wish to.
Anonymity is crucial especially in tyrannical societies as in the Philippines because it is almost the remaining protection for whistleblowers or people who expose secrets of governments and their agencies, as well as giant companies, which are harmful to the public. It is applicable to any source of news or views who is willing to expose the truth but not ready to go public. Anonymity also protects their connection with journalists, human rights advocates, and those in the opposition.
Apart from this, there are “privileged communications” or those only between two parties. These include lawyer-client, as well as doctor-patient, confidential communications.
III. Similar laws on surveillance and monitoring that violate the right to privacy
Even before the SIM Card Registration Act, the state has been enforcing various policies and laws for mass surveillance and monitoring against the people.
A. National ID System
Like the SIM card registration, the National ID System mandates all Filipino citizens to register themselves to the state. It was enacted on August 6, 2018, with the alleged purpose of consolidating all IDs or identification cards used by citizens. The said system will record where, how and when the ID is used, both in public and private transactions. It will track an individual’s activity and monitor an individual’s actions at all times. The system can gather people’s many personal, sensitive and behavioral information.
B. Cybercrime Prevention Act
The Cybercrime Prevention Act was enacted in September 2012. Hiding behind its name is the outright violation of privacy rights and even press freedom. It is a notorious law which criminalizes cyberlibel and other crimes over the internet.
One of its most dangerous provisions is giving power to the state to collect and store for up to six months texts, calls, and other data of users of telecommunications services (such as cellphones). The data can be accessed and scrutinized by government agencies through a court order.
It also gave the state freedom to seize and examine computer data and conduct a real-time data traffic collection for investigation. It also ordered internet companies to store internet traffic data up to six months and subscriber content up to a year.
C. Anti-Terrorism Law
The draconian Anti-Terrorism Law, enacted in July 2020, has a specific provision (Section 16) which refers to and allows state mass surveillance. Upon the Court of Appeals’ consent, it can wiretap, spy, intercept, or record private communication of a so-called terrorist or someone charged with terrorism. Telecommunications and internet companies can also be compelled to disclose information and identity and their records.
D. Data Privacy Act
In 2012, the government enacted the Data Privacy Act to “protect the fundamental human rights to privacy.” However, the law is toothless and has remained useless since its IRR was released on September 9, 2016. To date, it has yet to be tested on what it can do to protect the people’s right to privacy.
Despite its existence, there have been serious cases where private details were breached. One is the ComeLeaks (Comelec Leaks) in 2016, where the voting registration system was attacked and millions of records and the digital security of at least 55 million voters were compromised. Another case is the disclosure of the details of more than 870,000 Filipino accounts on Facebook in April 2021. The account owners’ number, full name, location, birthday and other personal information were obtained.
IV. Fascist surveillance in the countryside and cities
In rural areas and even in the cities, the state has long dismantled, using the AFP and PNP, the people’s right to privacy and anonymity and suppressed their democratic rights.
Among measures that explicitly violate these rights are the following: profiling of communities on the pretext of carrying out a census using soldiers, PNP obtaining private information of residents from local governments and agencies without legal reason or court order, listing down or logbook on checkpoints, taking pictures of residents and their belongings, entering civilian homes without warrants, monitoring of residents’ purchases and consumption, forced reporting of their daily activities and many more. These also violate the people’s right to free movement, and other fundamental civil liberties.
Profiling of farmers and indigenous peoples
In Bukidnon, armed soldiers of the 8th IB visited residential houses at Sitio Tubigon, Barangay Busdi, Malaybalay City on the last week of September 2022. Residents were frightened because soldiers demanded their personal information such as names, number of children, work details and so on. After three days, the residents were gathered in an assembly and were threatened to be killed if they were caught fraternizing with the people’s army. They carried out military operations in the sitio and took pictures of residents and their motorcycles.
A month prior, a platoon of soldiers also visited residential houses in Sitio Bendum in the same village. Each resident was coerced and interrogated. They were taken to a room one by one and interrogated for one to two hours. Soldiers also took their pictures and that of their motorcycles.
In other cases, the soldiers then used the information they gathered against the community. They would ask how many sons a household have so that they can forcibly recruit them to become elements of the CAFGU. They would also find out who have daughters who often become victims of sexual violence and abuse of soldiers. In some cases, the photos that the soldiers took of some residents are printed on tarpaulins and they are tagged members of the people’s army.
Profiling of unionists, journalists, other professionals and their families
In 2022, unions in Southern Tagalog successively reported the “house visits” of soldiers and police to threaten their families. The 202nd IBde and PNP-Calabarzon have “visited” the residence of union leaders of Gardenia, Daiwa Seiko, Technol Eight and Optodev, unions under the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU). During these, the police and soldiers “encourage” them to leave “communist front” KMU.
In October, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines expressed concern after the PNP-Quezon City “visited” GMA News’ JP Soriano at home and attempted to take his picture. The NUJP denounced this violation of Soriano’s privacy, as well as other journalists on the “list” for the PNP’s “house visits”. This development caused anxiety not only to Soriano but to the entire journalist profession.
In 2019, teachers of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers monitored a PNP directive instructing the Department of Education’s division and district offices to submit a list of members of the alliance. At least 34 PNP “school visits” in 10 regions in the country to profile “communist” teachers were recorded. During this time, police visited 13 schools in Metro Manila; four each in Regions I, III and IV-A; three in Bicol; two in Cordillera and one each in Regions IV-B, VI, X, and Caraga. Police requested the details of ACT members from the school administrators. The PNP ordered the profiling of teachers in December 2018.
In 2021, the PNP-Calbayog was exposed to have written the Regional Trial Court to provide it a list of “communist lawyers” or lawyers with clients accused by the PNP as members or supporters of the people’s army and charged with fabricated criminal cases.
Surveillance under the pretext of containing the Covid-19 pandemic
In July 2020, former Sec. Eduardo Año of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) ordered the Philippine National Police (PNP) to go “house-to-house” to look for and “take into custody” Covid-19 positive individuals. This violated the right to privacy and the law which requires police to have a warrant to enter and search anyone’s private residence. It violated the legal right to privacy that is more strict in relation to medical information.
In addition, the state forced people to register to “contact tracing applications” in July 2020. This included the StaySafe.Ph, a cellphone application that registered cellphone numbers to track user location or which establishment the user visited. The state made it appear that it aimed to provide quick information regarding exposure to Covid-19 positive individuals.
V. Expose and resist the establishment of a surveillance state
The Filipino people should expose and resist mass surveillance and monitoring. They must fight the state’s push for people to give up their right to privacy using the threat that “only those who have something to hide have reasons of be afraid.” In truth, even if someone is hiding something, he/she/they still have the right to keep all their information secret. Everyone needs to understand that the importance of defending privacy is a necessary extension of defending the right to press freedom and free expression.
It should also be made clear that violating the right to privacy and anonymity is a step towards intensified state repression, especially in the countryside where freedom of thought, expression and of the press are denied.
The people must be made aware for the need to defend their rights against state policies and measures such as SIM card registration, National ID and more. In other countries, privacy rights organizations have taken legal measures to question in courts the basis of the mandatory disclosure of private information of the people. They also question the use of data collected by private companies and states from such registrations.
Today, there are alliances of experts, journalists and human rights defenders which have demanded the repeal of the SIM Card Registration Act. This call is connected to the opposition against privacy-intrusive laws such as the National ID and Cybercrime Law. This will be part of the general resistance to the US-Marcos II fascist regime.
Protect your privacy
Everyone should learn to protect their privacy to avoid state monitoring, data mining for commercial interests of large capitalists, or criminal syndicates.
The practice of revealing everything that has been propagated in recent years and the culture of individualism, attention-grabbing and treating oneself as the center of the world it fostered should be countered.
The following measures can be taken:
- Fully protect your name, place of residence, phone number or email, location, destinations and other sensitive personal information.
- Do not provide personal information to people you do not know
- Be careful and prudent in using social media. Encourage the use of alternative or anonymous accounts, especially for sharing grievances or political views.
- Do not to give contact numbers to people you do not know or people you don’t want to contact you.
- Refuse to provide information that has nothing to do with a particular issue that needs to be shared.
- Refuse entry into residence, even to police or soldiers, to people who do not have the court orders.
- Practice rules for online privacy in using emails, social media and others. This includes creating a “private persona” that is different from one’s true identity. Use VPN and tighten privacy settings on social media platforms. Learn the system of encryption in daily communication. Practice the use of programs such as Signal, Protonmail, Veracrypt, and others.
- Learn to subvert or go around the SIM Card Registration Act
Communist Party of the Philippines
December 10, 2022