'Checking or profiling?': What personal information cops can ask you for
Members of the Civil Relations Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines prepare lunch meals at the AFP headquarters which will be distributed for free in Barangay Socorro, Quezon City on Thursday, April 29, 2021.
The STAR/Michael Varcas

'Checking or profiling?': What personal information cops can ask you for

Franco Luna, Bella Perez-Rubio (Philstar.com) - May 5, 2021 - 2:57pm

MANILA, Philippines — Celine and Mela* only wanted to help their communities when they set up pantries in their town in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The project, like most in the country, was inspired by the "give and take" motto of the Maginhawa pantry, they said, and the idea was to share that idea with everyone. It was also put up with the blessing of the mayor, barangay officials, and even the Sangguniang Kabataan of their town. 

Their pantry was a success. Within 45 minutes of setting up, crowds would begin gathering to donate goods or to take some home to their families. 

The communal supply cart was set up some "10 to 20 steps" from a police community precinct in the area, which they felt wasn't a problem at the time. Other community pantries had been set up in their area after all.

It only took three days before the police came looking for Mela; not at the pantry itself—but at her aunt’s house. It was odd, they said, that it was police from another town that came knocking at the door asking them to fill up a data memo. 

"It made me wonder why they had to visit. Why not stop by the pantry? Why did they have to look for us? Let’s say they were really checking for protocol. Why did it have to be that way?" the 23-year-old volunteer told Philstar.com in an interview. 

"We felt that it might be for profiling [...] so it would be easy for them to track us down later on...I don’t know of any ordinance that we should have had the police's permission."

RELATED: Another community pantry shuts down after profiling of Pandacan organizers

Just ‘checking’?

In an impassioned tweet thread published that same week, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, one of two spokespersons of the government’s anti-communist task force, said that state forces were simply "checking" the situation in community pantries.

This came as police visits on community pantry organizers over the past two weeks sparked conversations on what state forces can legally ask and document. 

Some organizers reported being asked if they belonged to progressive groups, while others were even asked about their relationship status.

In a phone call with Philstar.com, National Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro admitted that there was a disconnect between directives from PNP leadership and reports on the ground, which prompted a meeting between the NPC and the PNP's data privacy office. 

"We're not blind to the situation on the ground. It's disproportional, right? Why would they ask for their Facebook accounts if they can't offer a reason for it? We want to know what merited asking for this information and what the rationale was," he said partially in Filipino. 

"That’s why we’re meeting with them, to clarify what he (Parlade) meant by [the difference between profiling and checking.] Who was he speaking for, and who is going to conduct these data-gathering activities? Is it the NTF-ELCAC or the operating units on the ground?" he added. 

Though he was careful to point out that profiling in itself was not prohibited, he said that doing so the wrong way could be weaponized to "instill bias against a person."

Asked what a lawful basis for profiling would constitute, Liboro said: "Reasonability is a very important factor...there is no clear-cut list of what can or cannot be asked, but the guidance we provide is that there is a legitimate purpose which has been determined at the outset."

"That's what allows you to earn the trust of the people...it requires being sensitive to citizens' needs and reactions," he added.

However, detained Sen. Leila De Lima, a former justice secretary, in a written interview with Philstar.com coursed through her office, dismissed the distinction made by Parlade as “just word play.” 

“Let us not be baited into that. The issue is red-tagging,” she said.

Parlade’s remarks on community pantries have landed him in hot water with senators, at least five of whom have called for the NTF-ELCAC to be defunded in 2022. Other lawmakers have also sought a review of the task force’s budget. 

Philstar.com last week also reached out to Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief, and Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, a former justice secretary, to ask for their comments but has received no response from either senator as of this post.

RELATED: Senate bill seeks to criminalize red-tagging

When is it profiling? 

Celine and Mela are not the only organizers who have reported being made to submit information to the police.

One Quezon City-based organizer told Philstar.com earlier that their community pantry was visited by cops who were adamant about getting their names.

Two other organizers in Metro Manila whom Philstar.com reached out to refused to speak up for fear for their personal safety. There had been posts about police giving community pantry organizers infromation sheets to fill out but those have since been taken down.

READ: Harassment of community pantries leads to clamped operations

For the community patnry organizers in BARMM, a document shown to them read: “As this is a developing concern with the IATF’s guidelines on health and safety protocols, please submit the following priority intelligence requirements to this office.”

Among the questions were: 

  • Where are the community pantries in your area of responsibility located?
  • Who organized/initiated the said pantries?
  • How is the local government involved?
  • Is the minimum health and safety protocols being observed?
  • What are the actions taken by the local government to the violators?

"When my cousin texted me saying cops stopped by looking for me, I panicked...my only question is why they were looking for me specifically," Mela said in Filipino. "It was confusing. Why not visit us at the pantry?"

"We'd rather not (send in our information). With the recent events of red-tagging, we'd rather be careful of the details we give," Celine also said. "It isn't even required. It's an internal memo. Why are we being made to do it? It's not even addressed to us."

RELATED: Cop relieved for asking Calbayog court for list of lawyers representing communist rebels

It is unclear why the organizers of the pantries are listed as a priority intelligence requirement for official police matters, or why an internal police memo is being imposed on private civilians and initiatives. 

By virtue of Executive Order No. 70, the PNP is part of the NTF-ELCAC and is represented on the task force by its chief, Police Gen. Debold Sinas. 

"Profiling as a processing activity is not prohibited per se,” Roren Chin, NPC public information and assistance chief, told Philstar.com in response to emailed questions. 

“It can actually be validly done provided of course that there is a lawful basis under the DPA, there is adherence to the general data privacy principles – transparency, legitimate purposes and proportionality, upholding of data subject rights, and other applicable requirements under the Data Privacy Act." 

Processing “sensitive personal information” such as “political affiliations, marital status,” and more is prohibited, Chin said, unless otherwise provided for in Section 13 of the DPA. 

Collecting these information is allowed “if there is a law or regulation requiring the processing or when sensitive personal information is necessary for the establishment, exercise or defense of legal claims.” 

Philstar.com sought Police Brig. Gen. Ronaldo Olay, PNP spokesperson, for comment, but he has not responded as of this post after numerous requests. 

Speaking at a Laging Handa briefing in late April, though, Olay denied that the PNP had any policy to profile the organizers of community pantries. 

“There is no order from chief Sinas to have profiling or red-tagging of personalities behind these community pantries,” he said. 

“The intention of the PNP there is to serve the best intention of the public. We only look at it from the point of view of public safety. Police go there to monitor compliance to minimum public health standards.”

'No clear-cut guidelines'

According to De Lima, organizers are not obligated to give authorities personal information, citing protections under the Bill of Rights. 

“No one may be called to answer for an accusation unless filed before a court with the right to counsel. Anything before that that the state or the police may ask a citizen can be refused by the citizen,” she said. 

If questioning turns to harassment, De Lima added, organizers can demand the presence of a lawyer and file a case against the police. 

“Even a person under custodial investigation cannot be forced to answer questions. What more someone who is not under custodial investigation? Of course, he can refuse to answer questions from the police.”

READ: Justice chief: Community pantry organizers can't be compelled to give info

Most organizers, though, feel forced to give the information anyway because of the intimidation and power dynamics that come with speaking to armed and uniformed officers of the law—especially given the reputation they've built amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was an exhausting experience, because we’ve been volunteering for a long time, and it’s our first time experiencing something like this,” Celine and Mela said.

Liboro, for his part, referred to profiling activities as a "tool," saying profiling was also done legally in identifying ayuda beneficiaries and vaccination participants.

He highlighted that this tool should be used ethically, first and foremost, by doing so with accurate data and "legitimate purpose." 

"If they do decide to collect data, they should do it responsibly and with accountability. Because they become [data] controllers themselves, and they may have to answer for that...My stand on it is that no unfair decision [should be] made on an individual," he said. 

"If you want to do that, you better be sure that your subsequent decision on a person is based on accurate information that you have gathered, and that you have afforded the persons a right to be heard...Primordial to these rights is the right of citizens to be informed on how their data is used."

Asked where to draw the line between 'checking' and 'profiling', Chin said: "There is no clear-cut list of what can and cannot be asked."

"We are not privy as to how the NTF-ELCAC operates. As a government task force mandated under a particular Executive Order, it is expected that they are engaged in activities which are within their mandates and follows all required internal SOPs substantive and procedural processes," Chin added. 

For De Lima, however, profiling community pantry organizers only serves to discourage “a civic effort to help people in need during the pandemic.” 

“[W]hat this useless NTF-ELCAC does is discourage such civic-minded efforts by calling everything that appears to reflect negatively on the incompetent government and its useless officials as most probably the handiwork of communists.” 

'There are still people who need help'

The NPC said it would be meeting with both the PNP and the NTF-ELCAC to get the facts on the reported cases of profiling. 

"Should there be a need to collect personal data to maintain peace and order, they must accomplish the same with transparency, legitimate purpose, and proportionality and that citizens’ rights are fully observed," Liboro said. 

"You don't have a blanket authority to collect anything that you want. Law enforcement agencies must realize that while they are given the latitude by the law, their purpose must be limited by their mandates on what necessary information they need."

As for the two organizers, all that's left is to keep going as the longest lockdown in the world rages on. 

For them, it's as much about the idea of sharing as it is the actual circulation of supplies. 

“We’re going to continue the pantry because there are still people who need help,” they said. 

Asked what would force them to stop amid their very real safety concerns, the two volunteers said: “Probably only when we run out of people to fund it.” 

"So many are just thinking about how to get through the day."

*Names have been changed at interviewees' request. 

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