Thursday, June 28, 2007

Subverting Privacy: The Human Security Act Ushers in Big brother

Subverting Privacy: The Human Security Act Ushers in Big brother
by Dr. Giovanni Tapang
Samahan ng Nagtataguyod ng Agham at Teknolohiya para sa Sambayanan (AGHAM)

We're all being watched.

In the guise of searching for criminals and terrorists, there are invisible eyes and intricate surveillance networks that can follow you as you walk the streets, go into establishments and invade even our own homes. Everyone leaves personal electronic tracks that reveal who we are, what we do and what we like to the prying eyes of law enforcement officials. They even use your own cellphone to track where you go and who you talk to. Adding to this real threat is a law that allows the government to "legally" pry your bank accounts, listen to your conversations and strip you of your right to privacy at its whim.

With the Human Security Act, Big Brother has indeed arrived.

The Arroyo administration's latest effort to combat terrorism raises concern that Filipinos are now at greater risk of intrusion from their own government. The legislation, popularly known as the Anti-Terrorism Act, contains provisions that build on law enforcement's ability to peek at e-mail, to use wiretaps, monitor credit card purchases and bank transactions and conduct searches of suspected terrorists.

The Human Security Act (HSA) was foisted upon us during the preparations for the May 2007 elections. On February, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the bicameral version of the bill and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed it into law in a matter of days on March 6, 2007.

The HSA not only subverts our right to privacy under the guise of security and anti-terrorism, it also endangers the general citizenry with a dangerously vague definition of terrorism and a cabal of implementors that has a record of wanton disregard for human rights.

It has also worrying prospects of being prone to abuse as it has vague definitions for terrorism that undermines our freedom of association, assembly and movement. The definition of “terrorism” is deliberately made vague and broad. Section 3 defines “terrorism” as an act of “sowing and creating a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.”

The terror law can violates a person’s right to privacy. In Section 7 of the law, surveillance of terror suspects is allowed and authorities can use any means to intercept and record all communications of suspected terrorists and their alleged conspirators. Ostensibly, law enforcement officials need to get the Court of Appeals approval to conduct wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance but with the Hello Garci scandal, we know that they can perform this even without any such approval.

Your personal “Hello Garci” experience: Tracking and listening on your cellphone

Current technologies that make our day to day communications are vulnerable. The discovery of a crude telephone wiretap in the phonebox near the Aquino residence during election time is but a reminder how easy it is to listen in another's conversation. In the Hello Garci phone conversations, all those who called were recorded as clearly as they were heard by the user.

Cellular telephones, introduced as early as the 1980s, are still essentially radio devices. The cellphone service area is divided into small "cells" where an antenna tower is located to receive and transmit signals. A phone inside that “cell” monitors the strongest signal from the surrounding towers and attempts to register with it. If it can't find a usable paging channel or the registration fails in all available networks, the phone would show NO SERVICE. A cellphone has to register with a cell site to use its services and be useful to end users.

As long as a mobile phone is turned on, it periodically broadcasts a signal to the nearest cell sites to register itself to the network so it can receive phone calls and SMS. This very same technology that allows cellphones to function, also allows one to measure differences in the signal arrival time and thus locate the unit relative to the cell sites.

As cell phone units are but spruced up radios, they are subject to triangulation making every phone a physical locating device. There are newer phones with GPS chips but triangulation will work with every cellphone. It only has to be turned on and can be tracked even when not in a call. This is inherent in the way cellphones work. The only way to avoid tracking is to turn off your unit.

Furthermore, the police and military have boasted of their capability to monitor cell phone calls and track the locations of criminals that have led to their arrests. In a television interview last month, an officer of the Philippine National Police (PNP) warned that advanced wiretapping capabilities may have been used in the midterm elections

In Europe, SIM (subscriber identification modules) were used to locate and break up Al Qaeda cells. SIM cards connect cellphones to networks. Investigators were able to match the numbers with terror suspects and track some down in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and several countries in Europe. Even without personal information, the authorities were able monitoring other phone conversations by building on the phone network of a single surveilled phone. The perception of anonymity in obtaining a new SIM card can give a false sense of security.

Registration of SIM cards will also not work. It acts on the false logic that “if you tell me your name, then I can tell if you are a terrorist”. SIM registration is only an additional burden to the public and does not in any way ensure that terrorists will be caught. As Hon. Crispin Beltran said, “Cellphones are not deadly weapons like guns that need to be registered”.

As terrorists are now able to use other methods to communicate, it is the public that is left to the mercy of authorities and law enforcement officials. A normal cellphone user in the Philippines sends on the average 10 SMS to other friends, co-workers and family. If a person is thus suspected of terrorism, at least 10 other people would be implicated with him.

Under the terror bill, once you are made a suspect, even without proof or conviction, your location, messages and conversations are now subject to recording and tracking. Your phone list, messages and conversations are now compromised together with those in contact with you.

We are all under threat to have our personal Garci experience. While we don't fix electoral results and receive phone calls from the President, an increasingly distrustful and paranoid government such as the current one can cause you trouble and put you under surveillance because of mere suspicion. The Hello Garci issue, far from being resolved, is bound to multiply with arbitrary surveillance under the HSA.

Internet and Computer (in)security makes you vulnerable to snoops

The internet is a complex network with a lot of security holes. In early May, the PNP lamented the lack of cybercrime laws even as it has its own IT forensics lab. It is not technically difficult to sniff on a computer network. Internet service providers (ISPs) can be required to provide client information that can be used to track your browsing and emailing activities.

Viruses, trojans and back doors can maliciously email files from your computer by exploiting the current weaknesses of the operating system. These viruses can be brought to your computer in many ways, through floppy disks, CD-ROMs, email, web sites, and downloaded files. Those wanting to put you on surveillance can just send you an email that can compromise your whole system.

The well known “Love Bug” virus that spreads by e-mailing copies of itself to everyone in an infected computer's address book forced many companies in May 2000 to shut down their mail servers to prevent it from spreading. Even without the intent of destroying any data, under the broad definition of terrorism in the Terror law, inadvertent release of such a virus can cause you 40 years of no parole.

Emails are believed to be by many as secure and private because of its use of a password to log in. However, your email travels from the originating host computer to the destination and often passes through several relaying hosts. At each point in the transmission, your email can be read, changed and even deleted.

The US has a network of listening points, collectively known as ECHELON that screens out data sources and forward it to the US National Security Agency for analysis. The PNP and the NBI recently has formed its Task Force on Cyber Crime and was trained by the FBI. In the recent ASEAN meeting there were agreements for sharing security information under the eASEAN security pact. In the recent arrest of Indonesian terror suspects, the tracking of cell phone transmissions by Australian police via U.S. satellites was important.

However, physical access to your computer should be of primary concern. In the recent illegal arrest of Pastor Berlin Guerrero, even without the Terror bill in force, soldiers who tortured the church worker forced him to yield the password to his email and computer. They deleted all his emails and put in other in its stead. This method might seem crude and without need of computer savvy but is also frighteningly effective.

Friendster anyone?

As the government seeks to reduce the privacy of suspected terrorists, it also has kept the so called Anti-Terrorism Council very powerful. It has powers to proscribe any organization as terrorist, put an individual as a suspect which immediately reduces his rights even without trial, open your bank accounts, listen in your conversations and even extend this to your friends. Never has been putting your friendship network in cybercircles like Friendster and MySpace have been dangerous to all involved.

If only one of them is suspected of terrorism, everyone in the network is subject to the Terror bill's peering eyes and ears. With so much power concentrated into a cabal of government officials, who under recent experience has not shown any reasonable respect for human rights, there is more than enough reason to worry. These situations make the Terror Act a bill of attainder, which criminalizes and punishes individuals on the basis of guilt by association.

The Anti-Terrorism Council has also powers to build and profile anyone or any organization it sees fit under the vague definitions of terrorism as Section 54 allows it to "Establish and maintain comprehensive data-base information systems on terrorism, terrorist activities, and counter-terrorism operations". It can also "Freeze the funds, property, bank deposits, placements, trust accounts, assets and records belonging to a person suspected of or charged with the crime of terrorism or conspiracy to commit terrorism".

The security risks of this information database is enormous. It is a myth that if only we knew who everyone was, we could pick out the terrorists amongst us. Huge amounts of private information will be overseen by the Terror Council which allows a select group of people to possess too much information and power.

Only a committee that includes the DOJ and the Solicitor General stands as a grievance committee that evaluates any complaints to the police and law enforcement officials. These are the same people that the government would mobilize to implement the Terror bill.

Your personal money trails

Every time you check your salary in your bank's ATM, or encash a check, or buy with a credit card, you leave an electronic trace that can be recorded and put into a database. Under Sec. 27 of the Terror law, bank deposits, accounts and records of suspected terrorists and their alleged conspirators can be examined by authorities. All information involving a suspected account, including transactions with other accounts, can also be opened up and investigated.

In addition, the existing Anti-Money Laundering Act will flag transactions involving more than PhP 500,000. The Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) can freeze that account pending verification and further investigation. There have been reports of opposition candidates whose transactions during the campaign and elections were investigated by the AMLC to the detriment of these candidates. These capabilities to freeze and open accounts are often abused by those who can wield it.


That the Orwellian scenario ushered in by the Human Security Act is not fiction is bolstered by the events since the Garci scandal. From the Calibrated Pre-emptive Response, to PP1017, EO464, the arrest of Cong. Beltran and the experiences of the the Batasan 6, we have seen the extent to which the current government has tried to stretch legal boundaries to obtain its political ends. Together with the resistance of the people to these edicts and actions, the Supreme Court has struck down at these attempts to undermine civil liberties.

Under this context, we can view the Terror law as an attempt to silence all forms of political dissent under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Because the threshold for suspicion is vague, anyone is under threat. Groups like TXTPower who harness the texting generation in issues ranging from opposition to text tax to the Garci issue can be labeled terrorists if its advocacy for consumer rights have run counter to the current government's subservience to the whims of foreign financial institutions such as the IMF.

The opportunities to attack the legitimate rights of Filipinos are widespread under the new law, from harassing opposition groups to the collection of massive quantities of data on all citizens, innocent and otherwise. The terror law has no assurances to reveal the criminals but it has all the power to invade our privacy and subvert our rights.

Finally, what is more dangerous is that the fight against terror as stated by George W. Bush and Gloria Arroyo is open-ended. This raises concern that the government's new authority will last indefinitely and impact more on innocent citizens than its avowed targets. With the Terror bill in place the threat to our freedom now comes from the government and no other: the state itself is our terrorist.###

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