Our Government was Hacked: Cyber Martial Law and the Sottovirus

Definitely not a government web page.

The true test of any system is its ability to respond to problems. A system can work most of the time, but you can’t measure its true capacity unless you subject it to stress.

This is what happened to several government websites recently when Anonymous Philippines hacked them to display a message protesting the Cybercrime Prevention Act. While proving their skill as hackers, they also proved another thing: the security system of these government sites has failed. There have been a range of criticisms to this hacking: from petty and ineffective on one end to ultimately counterproductive on the other.

Whatever the case, this serves as a good analog to the larger narrative. The government is designed to self-correct internal problems through a system of checks and balances. There’s a reason there are three branches of government, two houses of Congress, 24 senators, and so on. These bureaucracies make it hard for any single element to make the entire system fail, similar to a computer’s using several layers of protection, such as firewalls and anti-virus software.

So what does the passage of the Cybercrime bill say about our government? Our legislative system has been hacked; its many layers of security have failed. A malicious virus was uploaded, undetected, and resulted in the system behaving contrary to its intended design.

Let me explain the analogy. As part of a democratic government, our legislation was designed to create democratic laws. In contrast, the laws crafted by a dictatorial government would be undemocratic. By now it’s obvious to any intelligent person who has a basic understanding of democracy that the Cybercrime Law is undemocratic. I have yet to encounter someone who thinks otherwise. Despite their responsibility for the law, even our politicians agree, but it will take some explaining.

Most probably, the implications of the Cybercrime Law — particularly on the right to free speech and privacy — weren’t fully understood by most legislators when they first encountered it. I don’t think that any intelligent legislator would think that someone who simply tweets an unflattering sentence about someone should be at risk of government surveillance or spending a decade behind bars. This is just one of the Cybercrime Law’s implications that weren’t so obvious at first. These concerns possibilities may be absurd, but they’re legitimate ones, at least according to every lawyer I’ve read and spoken to so far.

Senator Escudero: Better late than never?

I believe that if you take a poll of our lawmakers, asking them whether they would have passed the bill knowing these implications, the results would show how much each lawmaker understands and values democracy. Only the undemocratic or incredibly stupid would still have passed it.

In spite of everything, I still think majority of our lawmakers are basically democratic. Yet the Cybercrime Law shows that a mostly-democratic legislative branch has created an extremely undemocratic law. The executive branch, which is lead by someone who would especially want to avoid any association with dictatorship, would have vetoed the bill had he known its dictatorial implications.

Sadly, most of them will never admit this. Senator Escudero has been the first and only one so far to have admitted his mistake, but only because he has good reason to. He is the author of a bill that decriminalizes libel. There could be nothing more embarrassing than his having passed a bill that not only perpetuates libel’s criminal status but broadens it as well. An error of this magnitude is better corrected sooner than later.

Which makes me wonder why Senator Angara, who has also authored a bill removing the prison penalty for libel, has yet to admit his mistake. It probably has to do with the fact that he is a principal author of the Cybercrime Law. Admitting that you shouldn’t have passed your own law is understandably more embarrassing. Two more senators, Sen. Honasan and Sen. Estrada, also have pending bills that decriminalize libel. Yet both have voted for a bill that makes libel an even graver crime, and both have yet to admit their grave mistake.

The other senators are not as hard-pressed to admit their error, and it will be interesting to listen to their excuses when (or if) they do. But I highly doubt that many will. Because if more Senators admit that they’ve made a mistake, then the integrity of the entire legislative institution will be jeopardized. Better to perpetuate the story that the Cybercrime Law, flawed as it is, is still the product of a working legislative branch.

P-Noy thoroughly examining something.

Which is precisely the story that the executive one has been telling so far. His spokespersons have said that he endorsed the Cybercrime Law only after studying it thoroughly. Which is a good political move considering the alternative: admitting that he and the people who work for him weren’t doing their jobs (or as his critics love to call it, Noynoying).

Our government may not admit it, but the integrity of the legislative and executive branches has been tested, and it has failed badly. Like the handful of government websites hacked by Anonymous PH, our democratic system has been hacked — the Cybercrime Law is the malicious web page to prove it.

But there is hope. The third branch of government has yet to fail, and it is now being tested. Several citizens have separately filed motions asking the Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) on implementing the law’s undemocratic provisions. Some have even asked that the entire law be repealed. But it will be hard for the Supreme Court to do either. Whichever they choose, it will mean the failure of the executive and legislative branches. Understandably, Chief Justice Sereno would think twice before painting P-noy and his administration as less than competent.

And if there’s any branch who understands how undemocratic and unconstitutional the Cybercrime Law is, it’s the Supreme Court. Regardless of what the SC decides, it’s up to us citizens, the programmers and owners of this system, to make sure that the error is corrected. We deserve some of the blame, having installed these faulty components. But it’s a good sign that unlike the incompetent government we’ve elected, we’ve detected the virus.

CJ Sereno and the SC: The Last Bastion?

What’s left is to deal with it — telling our anti-virus software to put the virus in quarantine (issue a TRO), delete it (repeal the law), and of course, uninstalling those responsible for it (not re-electing them). The Cybercrime Law is testing our country — whether we’re truly a democracy or just a democracy on paper. It is then fitting that some have dubbed it “cyber martial law.” Forty years ago, when Marcos declared martial law, we faced a similar test. I hope it doesn’t take us as many years — or casualties — to pass this one.

For updates on the fight to junk the Cybercrime Prevention Act (Cyber Martial Law), join the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA) on Facebook. Filipino Freethinkers is a proud member of PIFA.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.