After SIM cards and laptops, what would PH gov’t want to register next?

Some time back, the government revived proposals to impose mandatory registration of all SIM cards. Of late, the National Bureau of Investigation surprised the public with its odd proposal to register all laptop computers. Their common refrain: Registration is needed in the fight against crime. Thankfully, most of us are not fooled by this twin proposals.

My first reaction was: “Are they nuts?” but as I looked closely, I felt personally and politically insulted. The twin proposals seem to be an ill-covered maneuver by government to insult every citizen demanding greater accountability and transparency from authorities and agencies. Faced with a demand for a Freedom of Information Law, the government lets loose its agencies to get more information from their citizens under the guise of crime-fighting.

Methinks the NBI could not be serious in making the Philippines the first so-called democratic country in the world to have laptops registered. If they want to trace criminal activities by way of laptop registration, the men and women of NBI might as well form another line for all other types of computers, like desktop PCs, netbooks and tablets. For sure, they will later discover that all these could be used by criminals and terrorists. While they are busy implementing their proposal and registering gazillions of gadgets, who will investigate crimes?

This stupidest and most brainless proposal could just be a way of tempering distaste and mistrust of the public for what appears to be their choice project: SIM card registration. The initial reactions to the laptop registration plan included pleas that the government instead impose mandatory SIM card registration and spare people’s computers. That seems to the what the NBI and its mother agency, the Department of Justice, want all along. Lest we forget, the honorable secretary of justice has given a legal opinion that SIM card registration could be legal. (Of course, the secretary’s legal opinion is just that – an opinion, that is open to challenge by citizens before the courts.)

Choosing between SIM cards and laptop computers is an attempt by the government to limiting one of most important constitutionally-guaranteed rights: the right to privacy. The government has no business prying into our mobile phones and computers — except when authorities could prove the need in certain cases before a court which by law is the only authority that could grant them full or limited access.

Some who are frustrated with the quality of law enforcement and the justice system in our country have gone on to blame what they perceive to be an excessive focus on rights when they voice support for registration of SIM cards and laptops. We cannot blame them. But we should tell them that the constitution’s Bill of Rights are there to protect citizens precisely from incursions of the state and other powerful interests in the country. Some say, those rights are sacred. I say, these rights cannot be capriciously cut down just because some of us are willing or at the drop of a proposal from any government agency.

In both cases of SIM card and laptop registration, the rationale sounds good — crime-fighting — but just how these would be implemented,  how the criminals would be caught, prosecuted and punished, and how innocent citizens would be spared, the proponents are silent. No word too on who will shoulder the expense, and how long the registration period (ample time for criminals and terrorists to do other malevolent acts using other means or precisely these tools). They just want us to surrender our privacy, period.

I wonder what our government has been doing in terms of research and in cooperation agreements with law enforcers of other countries. The NBI and the DOJ should be able to ask their counterparts how crime-fighting is done in this age of social media, and how to do so while protecting the rights of majority who are innocent. Crime-fighting should focus on pinning down the few who poke fun at everyone for repeatedly violating the law – and while law enforcers are doing that, that they minimize harm, inconvenience and violation of essential rights of the majority who are innocent.  I am certain the IT and cybersecurity communities in our country and elsewhere would provide the NBI and DOJ better advice than to embark on this stupidest twin proposals.

If we allow registration of SIM cards and laptops, there will be no end to government finding other tools and things to have registered. Meanwhile, the criminals and terrorists continue to plot and victimize the public because those tasked with enforcing the law are busy not doing their work scientifically and intelligently.