Seeding change: Foundation for Media Alternatives challenges rampant surveillance in public health in the Philippines

"When it comes to technology-related issues, many governments are ill-equipped and rely on external help. It is critical that civil society be among those that provide such help. Otherwise, the gap is filled almost exclusively by private sector entities and their interests.”

Since 1987, non-profit organisation Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) has advocated for the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) for democracy and sustainable development in the Philippines, with a strong focus on gender and ICTs, privacy and data protection, and internet rights. This work is pursued in an increasingly difficult context, as the Philippines Universal Periodic Review civil society submissions reveal. The country lacks oversight and accountability of police and intelligence agencies, data privacy is insufficiently protected by the government, and independent media are routinely persecuted.

Fighting surveillance amid the spread of the pandemic 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw renewed and rampant surveillance and citizen monitoring under the guise of public health. FMA’s recent work has focused on understanding how fundamental freedoms have been curtailed in this new context. Through an APC subgrant, they addressed the issue of “Weaponisation of Surveillance Amid the Pandemic”, the most comprehensive investigation to date of pandemic-related surveillance in the Philippines.

“Surveillance mechanisms have been used worldwide, in the context of fighting the pandemic. It is key to understand that this is part of a bigger trend, while also understanding how these processes unfold locally,” FMA founder Lisa Garcia said in an interview with APC.

 

To that end, FMA’s research shines a light on the privacy implications of the Philippine government’s initiatives, which were constantly changing as the pandemic developed. This included a myriad of contact tracing applications and tools, each managed by a different government agency or contracted out to private entities. The Philippine government also used CCTV networks, camera drones and artificial intelligence technologies for real-time monitoring of targeted areas to identify possible quarantine violators.

“Given the national government’s inability to come up with a single, harmonised digital strategy at the onset of the pandemic, local government units and national government agencies went on to develop their own COVID-19 solutions,” Garcia explained. “This resulted in numerous contact tracing applications and other related databases that did not follow a particular standard or framework and led to a balkanised approach,” she added. This posed many challenges, including making it more difficult and time consuming for researchers to compile, compare and analyse the different measures, policies and processes entailed.

In this context, Philippine mobile users started receiving a regular stream of spam messages via SMS. Irresponsible disclosure of COVID patient data caused harm, including harassment of women, as a story published on media outlet Philstar reveals. One woman indicated that she had never received such spam calls or text messages previously, adding, “As much as I want to change my number, I can’t. It is needed for contact tracing in the event I get infected. Should that happen, people will need to know who I have been in contact with and where I have been. But these calls and text messages are not only disrespectful, but it is also frightening for us women.”

According to human rights organisations, local governments and law enforcement authorities also used physical and psychological abuse, including shaming, as punishment for community quarantine curfew violators.

Through a public campaign, FMA has focused on building the capacity of citizens in holding the government accountable. “We started by building evidence on the use of surveillance and monitoring technology during the pandemic, then used this evidence to encourage civil society organisations and individuals to conduct their own analysis of government-initiated COVID-19 measures,” Garcia said. “We understood it was key to increase the interest and capacity of stakeholders to engage in policy and governance processes related to privacy-intrusive measures.”

In a very challenging context, FMA managed to distribute 400 physical copies of their report to NGOs in the Philippines. Two sessions in global forums were organised to share the report – one at the Global Digital Development Forum in May 2021, and another during the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum in September 2021. A more complete summary of the report was available during that event. This was supported by a social media campaign around the report, including multimedia materials and infographics to make the content more accessible.

Throughout the process, and as a result of their work in the “Weaponisation of Surveillance” project, FMA raised their profile both nationally and internationally. They were invited to closed-door government consultations on specific technology solutions, such as that involving the country’s digital vaccine certificate programme, and by the Global Network Initiative (GNI) to share their insights on the privacy implications of COVID-related government measures. “We were the only civil society organisation in a meeting with government agencies and private sector entities,” Garcia stated, stressing the need to involve more civil society groups and organisations in these processes.

"When it comes to technology-related issues, many governments are ill-equipped and rely a lot on external help," Garcia concluded. "It is critical that civil society be among those that provide such help, otherwise this gap is filled almost exclusively by private sector entities and their interests.” 

 

 

This piece is a version of the information provided by Foundation for Media Alternatives as part of the project “ Weaponisation of Surveillance Amid the Pandemic”, adapted for the Seeding Change column. This column presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through APC's core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects.

Did this story inspire you to plant seeds of change in your community? Share your story with us at communications@apc.org

 

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