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In the Name of COVID, How Far Can Police Go in Checking Your Facebook?

What makes a good cop, bad cop online?
by Ara Eugenio
Sep 9, 2020
Photo/s: Jerome Ascano
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The police spent this week scouring social media feeds for photos of people defying rules on face masks and quarantine parties, which have become more imperative as the Philippines wants to sustain the decline in new coronavirus infections.

How far can authorities go in the name of flattening the curve? Filipinos’ rights online are protected by the 2012 Data Privacy Act and its fundamental principles must prevail, said lawyer Jamael Jacob, Data Protection Officer at the Ateneo de Manila.

“Monitoring must be done in a lawful manner,” Jacob told reportr.

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WHAT POLICE CAN OR CAN’T DO

Foremost, the police cannot hack into an individual’s private social media account while investigating alleged quarantine violations, he said.

Downloading and keeping photos, videos, and other information posted which are irrelevant to the case cannot be used to establish a person’s profile, or used as further evidence, he said.

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When the collected data has served their purpose and there is no more legal basis to retain them, they must be disposed of, he said.

The police must also ensure the security of collected data. They are not allowed to publicize it for the purpose of generating media interest, he said.

HOW TO POLICE THE INTERNET?

Policing the wild world of cyberspace is also different compared to actual sleuthing on the ground that authorities are accustomed to, Jacob said.

Using online data as evidence can be tricky, considering how online identity is hard to confirm. One cannot automatically assume that an account belongs to a particular person, not to mention manipulated data or content that are rampant online, he said.

Hijacked accounts can also pose hurdles, he said. Early this year, the world’s largest social media expert investigated a barrage of fake or poser accounts.

The PNP’s own record of violating quarantine rules should also be addressed, he said. The “mañanita” or dawn birthday fete of the Metro Manila police chief, Major General Debold Sinas, became a rallying point for critics of the social media crackdown.

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“They need to be able to show first that they can implement it as an impartial, objective agency. That means it should apply the same way to everyone—including their own people,” Jacob said.