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Faking Facebook accounts a criminal offense, says DOJ

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Justice (DOJ) has asked Facebook to take down over a hundred of dummy accounts bearing the names of students and alumni of several universities across the country, but the data must be preserved for possible prosecution of the perpetrators.

“We have informed Facebook about this so that these could be taken down, but more importantly to preserve the data, whether we are talking about subscriber data, traffic data or content data of these accounts,” Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said on Monday.

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He said the data would be used as evidence should the affected individuals decide to file a criminal complaint against the creators of the dummy accounts.

“As we all know, computer-related identity theft is a crime, which is defined and punished by [Republic Act No.] 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act,” Perete told a news briefing.

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It is a serious criminal violation punishable by six to 12 years imprisonment, he said further.

At least 112 people have complained to the DOJ that their Facebook accounts were duplicated by yet unknown hackers, Perete said.

Among the schools whose students fell victim to the breach of their personal data are the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, University of Santo Tomas, University of San Carlos and University of San Jose Recoletos.

The Department of National Defense (DND) and the anticybercrime unit of the Philippine National Police are conducting separate probes.

“It’s a cause for concern because it creates discordant voices among the people when there should not be,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Antiterrorism bill

Lorenzana pointed out that people against and for the terror bill were accusing each other of perpetrating the cloning of Facebook accounts.

The proliferation of Facebook dummy accounts has engendered two competing theories—that it is meant to stoke fear and harass those opposing the terror bill, and that it is aimed at spreading disinformation against the controversial measure.

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Sen. Risa Hontiveros said that if the creators of the dummy accounts thought they could sow fear in the hearts of those opposing the terror bill, they were wrong. The effort will just unite the critics more, she said.

“They cannot take away our identity. They cannot take away our resistance. What they’ve done is unite us more,” Hontiveros said.

A House opposition leader said on Monday that the mushrooming of thousands of cloned or dummy accounts on Facebook could be a prelude to a crackdown on activists, who may be framed for violations of the terror bill through fake posts.

‘Planting of evidence’

Such a strategy by state authorities would be tantamount to an “online tanim ebidensya (planting of evidence)” through identity theft, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate warned in a statement.

He said there might be a link between the sudden proliferation of cloned accounts of Filipino Facebook users, among them student activists, journalists and progressive leaders, and the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which is awaiting President Duterte’s signature.

“If the proposed terror bill is enacted into law, real name owners of these fake accounts can be easily sent to jail for being framed by such means,” Zarate said.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said: “If he has the evidence, he should file the corresponding charge. But in a time of pandemic, he should avoid jumping to conclusions without any evidence.”

In his statement, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar urged the public to be “conscientious and vigilant” by reporting fake accounts.

“Our office continues its programs, such as Dismiss Disinformation and Youth for Truth, meant to quell fake news and combat misleading information,” Andanar said.

The House of Representatives last week passed on final reading House Bill No. 6875 adopting Senate Bill No. 1083, which would amend the Human Security Act by instituting tougher measures against suspected terrorists, raising fears it could be weaponized against government critics.

Among other provisions, the bill allows authorities to arrest and detain people on suspicion of being a terrorist for 14 days, extendible by another 10 days. It removes the safeguard in the earlier law that penalizes erring officers with a P500,000 per day fine for each day someone spends in wrongful detention.

Under the bill, any person who shall “threaten” to commit terrorism shall suffer the penalty of 12 years in prison. The same prison term shall be meted out against those who will “propose any terroristic acts or incite others to commit terrorism.”

The measure says terrorist acts “shall not include advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights,” provided they are “not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety.”

‘Scare tactics’

The definitions, however, are too vague, broad and open to interpretation by authorities who may use the loose wording to justify actions against activists and dissenters, according to critics of the bill.

Critics of the bill need not look far as they themselves could be behind the proliferation of bogus Facebook accounts as part of “scare tactics” to spread disinformation against the measure, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said on Monday.

Lacson said Senate Bill No. 1083, which he principally sponsored, had sufficient safeguards to prevent abuses by authorities and could withstand judicial scrutiny by the Supreme Court.

He also urged the public to read the contents of the measure before making any judgment on its supposed draconian provisions.

“This [surge in dummy Facebook accounts] is alarming in the sense that it could be part of scare tactics,” Lacson said in a television interview. “For all we know, those opposing [the bill] were the ones behind it to scare the people by dishing out disinformation,” he said.

Lacson, a former Philippine National Police chief, said opponents of the bill “may also be behind the trolls who are threatening that people will be arrested.”

Hontiveros said Facebook should be accountable when it came to the safety of its users and be responsible for protecting the data and privacy of its users.

“The platform has to stop cozying up to authoritarian propaganda, fake news and trolls,” she said on Twitter.

With reports from Julie M. Aurelio and Dona Z. Pazzibugan

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TAGS: Anti-Terrorism Bill, fake Facebook accounts, Panfilo Lacson, Risa Hontiveros, university students
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