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  • Writer's pictureJam Jacob

Checking on the PhilSys

The implementation of the country’s national ID system is only now starting to gain momentum. This is because, despite the passage of its enabling law in 2018, it’s been nothing but setbacks and delays for the project, one after the other, caused by a range of distinct but sometimes related issues. The most recent, of course, is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

This narrative has been unfavorable to the current administration. It’s been placed in a tough spot, particularly since it considers the system one of its more notable legacies. With 2022 (and therefore, its end) approaching fast, it’s no wonder agencies are scrambling to get it up and running, highlighting even minor milestones every chance they get.

The folks over at the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) are certainly doing their part. Having jumpstarted the registration effort around this time last year, they estimate around 50 to 70 million registered Filipinos by this year’s end. That is a bold prediction, to be sure, considering the erratic nature of the present health crisis.

All the same, the agency released this July its mid-year implementation report. Its key disclosures include:

  • There is now an online platform where people can go through the Step 1 phase of the registration process, consisting of the collection of demographic information and the scheduling of appointment for Step 2.

  • There are now 415 sites around the country where people can book their appointments.

  • More than 37 million Filipinos have completed Step 1.

  • 965 registration centers, spread across 78 provinces, are now operating to cater to Step 2 of the process, which refers to the collection of biometric information and the validation of submitted supporting documents.

  • More than 16 million Filipinos have completed Step 2.

  • The PSA has partnered with Landbank to allow registrants to open a bank account after they finish Step 2. The idea is to make sure at least one in every family has a bank account. Something which would supposedly allow for “easier, safer, and contactless transactions”, including the distribution of government financial assistance.

  • So far, more than 4 million registrants have applied for a Landbank account.

  • PSA is also working with PhilPost for the distribution of the PhilID cards. A registrant’s receipt of the card is Step 3 (and the last stage) of the registration process.

  • More than a million cards have been released to PhilPost. Around 300,000 have already been successfully delivered.

Glancing at the report, it’s easy to see how the PSA tried its darnedest to paint the entire campaign in a good light. Little was said about problems the rollout might have encountered or controversies that could have cropped up along the way. The truth, however, is that this undertaking has been anything but uneventful:

  • Registration issues. When the online registration portal was launched on April 30, it became inaccessible almost immediately due to so-called “technical glitches”. In a clarification, the PSA claimed that the massive influx of Web traffic caused by thousands of would-be registrants led to delays in the release of one-time passwords, which are necessary before registrations could proceed. Meanwhile, it has not exactly been smooth sailing for onsite registration either. In May, a mall-based registration site in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, was temporarily shut down after an overcrowding incident violated government-imposed health protocols.

  • Scammers and Fixers. Also in May, the PSA warned the public of certain websites, social media pages, and even individual fixers, claiming to be official PhilSys platforms and PSA representatives. Apparently, they have been collecting personal data illegally, with some even charging fees in the process (Note: PhilSys registration is free). Do bear in mind that this is not the first time the agency has issued this kind of warning. In December last year, it came out with a similar statement.

  • Questionable Transactions. This July, the Commission on Audit took note of alleged audit deficiencies in the handling by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) of its P419-million budget for a PhilSys information production and campaign. Apparently, the PCOO failed to hire monitoring personnel for its PhilSys project team, and submitted disbursement reports without the required documentary support. It’s the second time this year that PhilSys-related spending has been challenged for supposed anomalies. In January, an anti-corruption group filed a complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman against officials of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) because of a supposed anomalous contract worth P1.75 billion between the central monetary authority and a foreign company. The transaction involves equipment and materials to be delivered to the BSP for their use in the production of PhilID cards. The PSA secured the services of the BSP as official manufacturer of the said cards.

Clearly, problems have been all over the place. And by all indications, they are only bound to increase and get worse. The experience of other countries has shown that the more difficult and complicated issues will start to surface once people actually start using their IDs — or, for that matter, are unable to. That’s the time when things like function creep, identity theft, discrimination, data quality issues, and data breaches are expected to rear their ugly heads. Other national ID systems have gone through them, but not all can claim success in their responses. In fact, India’s Aadhaar — the system PhilSys is patterned after — remains contentious to this very day.

So far, the government has tamed both the people’s nerves and the critics’ misgivings by highlighting relevant provisions of the PhilSys law (i.e., RA 11055). It constantly points to those sections that purport to regulate the proper use of the system, and which penalize misconduct and other types of offenses. The PSA also takes the time to explain the security features of the physical ID itself. Coincidentally, the presence of the National Privacy Commission (NPC), as the country’s data protection authority, and the legislation it draws its powers from (i.e., Data Privacy Act of 2012) are also often mentioned.

Time will tell if they are actually sufficient in protecting the system from all perceived threats. At the moment, the early signs give little comfort.

Indeed, the fact that we’re seeing fraudulent schemes this early appears to indicate that the imposable penalties prescribed by pertinent laws are not working as effective deterrents as the government had hoped. Equally suspect is the NPC’s impact as regulator. Since it began operating in 2016, it hasn’t exactly made anyone pay a price for committing data privacy-related offenses. Also, its active and continuing promotion of PhilSys casts doubt on its independence and ability to remain objective should it later be called on to investigate data privacy irregularities surrounding the ID system.

Having said that, the inevitability of the PhilSys era is clear. It is now left to the people as the system’s intended beneficiaries — and potential victims, in case it is compromised — to pay close attention to and scrutinize developments relating to this massive project.

Credit ought to be given to whom it is due. The government succeeded in selling this idea of a secure, comprehensive ID system that is supposedly long overdue and only has good things to bring to this country. On that premise, the people must hold it to its word and, if necessary, take it to task. Such is the nature of a bargain and the core essence of accountability.

This article first appeared on on July 25, 2021 8:02 pm.

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