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The electoral gambit: With votes and data

With less than three years before the 2022 National Elections, the country is preparing once again to elect a new set of leaders. Civic society continues to spare no effort to keep elections fair and votes sacred.

But even as the 2022 election approaches, the 2016 elections remain mired in controversy. Amid defeated vice presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos’ claims of electoral fraud, reports have also emerged alleging that President Rodrigo Duterte’s election campaign was aided by the Strategic Communications Laboratory (SCL), a now-defunct political consultancy company.

The company, along with its subsidiary Cambridge Analytica, was discovered to have harvested private information from Facebook for their political clients. “Data and information is money, it is power, especially now,” declares Allen Surla, a professor from the Political Science Department, underlining the implications of data breaches.

State of the nation

SCL’s actions eventually led to their demise. In September 2016, accusations came forward involving United States (US) President Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russian government agents for allegedly conspiring to win the 2016 US National Elections. The subsequent scandal and public outrage culminated in the closure of both SCL and Cambridge Analytica in 2018.

In September this year, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed in an interview with news agency Rappler that the company also carried out operations in the Philippines, describing the country as a “petri dish”—the high rate of social media usage combined with weak data security made the country an ideal platform to experiment with data manipulation to influence public opinion, Wylie detailed.

Surla, who also worked extensively with information and communication technologies for development, says that the illegal acquisition of data is nothing new, “Data from way back had been manipulated in different ways. We’re just getting more technologically advanced now so [data manipulation] is much easier [now] than before.”

As Surla explains, for companies to handle personal information, consent must be given by users first. But customers are also caught in a bind—services like social media can also only be used after signing off a waiver.

The internet has become a potent game changer in politics, says Dr. Francis Domingo, a former military analyst for the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Office of Strategic and Special Studies and now an Assistant Professor in the International Studies Department. He points out that the fast rate of dissemination and broad range of information that can be sent online means that even classified state secrets can be transferred with relative ease and anonymity.

Domingo, who worked at the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism and the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies where he specialized in national intelligence and cyber security concerns,  points to cyber attacks carried out during high-level talks for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in 2017, “We were hacked by elements linked to Vietnam, but [we cannot] claim if it was the Vietnam government, military, or police.” He claimed that among those compromised in the attack were the websites of the AFP and the Office of the President.

Price of data

“Data has become a commodity, it can be sold. If you can afford it, I can sell it to you and you can win an election,” warns Surla. He explains that the illicit exchange in information is not only limited to companies like SCL and Cambridge Analytica.

Although the Data Privacy Act outlines appropriate and legitimate ways for companies to acquire and process customers’ personal information, Surla alleges that the systems of trusted institutions like banks are not foolproof, “There are always elements in the banking system or the bank itself, so na-bribe, nabili [ang data].”

Challenging offending institutions in court is another problem. As Surla explains, waivers can also serve as a legal defense for culprits, “[If] something like Cambridge Analytica [happens] again, they [can] simply say that you’ve already waived your right [to privacy].”

In January 2017, the National Privacy Commission (NPC) raised alarm over one of the country’s biggest banks after NPC Chair Raymund Liboro reported that the bank issued information sheets that explicitly allowed customers to waive their data privacy rights. The bank quickly issued an apology and promised to revise the faulty document, according to Liboro.

Data, whether legally or illegally acquired, is used as a tool to win elections, claims Surla. While vote-buying still occurs, unscrupulous parties can instead look to manipulating voters using data instead of votes directly. “You manipulate the target,” he explains further.

In a May 2018 interview with The Guardian, Wylie narrated that personal data—down to individual likes—was harvested from Facebook users via disguised surveys. The information is then run through a series of algorithms to create highly detailed reports on users. Using these results, targeted political messaging can be sent to ranging from simple advertisements to downright fake news.



Countering the threat

There is no question about electoral interference, asserts Domingo. Aside from local players, non-state actors such as terrorists, anonymous groups, and even multinational companies now also exert significant influence on global politics. “These are actors that were not present before…In the US, they also have right-wing groups [that] can inflict some damage and [who] can influence some policies. In fact, terrorism can influence a lot of policies,” he elaborates.

For democracies to guard against shifts from the status quo, there is no choice but to engage through the internet as well, says Domingo. “You might as well manage it and counter so that you can improve our electoral system and make it more secure,” he emphasizes.

Surla also echoes Domingo’s sentiments on security threats and describes the immense difficulty of securing personal data. “Protecting data is very expensive…if the hackers that would want to sell data [or] manipulate [the] data of people are able to [do so], then we’re in deep trouble.”

Just a little over a month before the national elections last May 2016, the Commission on Elections’ database fell prey to a cyber attack, which led to the leak of the data of more than 54 million registered voters. Hackers issued statements of protest, demanding that the government agency beef up its security measures.

Toward 2022

DLSU students, many whom are registered voters, also have their own apprehensions over the upcoming national elections. Jolo Siy (IV, AB-PSM) believes that data security will be a key weakness of the elections. He shares his concern that it will be used by unscrupulous groups, “People will do anything to gain votes.”

Jacco Magpayo (II, AB-HIM) highlights that the possibility of manipulation can never be discounted as long as voters are not properly educated with their right to vote. He says that a lack in education can serve as a pathway for dishonest elections, as “certain parties can use this as an advantage in order to win.”

In the long term, Surla is concerned that data might erode democracy even further. With a hefty price tag attached to data, he fears that richer politicians may strategically utilize data in order to win in the elections. “It’s no longer very democratic in that sense—only the wealthier ones who can access the data would be able to benefit from that,” he states.

Domingo, on the other hand, believes that the foundations of democracy will endure, even if the level of freedom takes some hits. For him, the country’s fate ultimately rests on the continued watchfulness of people, “In terms of protecting [the] current democratic society that we have, it is really [by] being vigilant.”

*With reports from Deo Cruzada

By Gershon De La Cruz

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