BusinessWorld reported on Oct. 5 that the National Privacy Commission has received reports of leaked contact-tracing data resulting in “phishing attacks” via mobile phone text messages. In a bulletin issued Tuesday, the commission noted the possible misuse of personal information disclosed by the public in contact tracing and health declaration forms.

“The contents of these unsolicited [mobile text] messages reportedly include links that redirect to legitimate-looking but fraudulent [web] sites when clicked. These sites may steal users’ personal data, introduce mobile malware, and even commit fraud,” BusinessWorld quoted the commission bulletin.

If memory serves me, I believe this is the first time that a government agency actually took official notice of the possible abuse of personal information disclosed by the public in line with COVID-19 protocols. The unscrupulous have now the new modus operandi of compromising personal information on contact tracing and health declaration forms. Data, indeed, is money.

Data leaks are nothing new, especially when it comes to compromising particularly mobile number information. The alleged sale of “numbers” has been bandied about since the rise in the popularity and common use of mobile phones about 15 years ago. Anyone with access to a list or pool of mobile numbers was vulnerable to being corrupted to sell or rent out the numbers.

In this particular situation, however, given the detailed personal information on contact tracing and health declaration forms, mobile numbers can be linked to actual names and addresses of persons, and possibly even e-mail addresses. In short, it goes way beyond a blind list of mobile numbers. The information allows for the creation of a more comprehensive database on people and where they are from, and how to “reach out” to them.

The same database can now be used to try and “harvest” Facebook profiles as well. Or to create bogus social media accounts using legitimate personal information. Then, those bogus accounts can be used to influence voting behavior. It is all a question of whether certain groups will have enough motivation and resources to take the data leak to the “next level” to achieve certain objectives.

Combine this supposed data leak with the upcoming May 2022 local and national elections, then the value of that contact “list” grows exponentially. Again, it all depends on what “buyers” intend to do with the information on the list, and what is the “potential” of such information to them. Campaigning is just one possibility, influencing voting is another. Whether marketing a product or a candidate, the elements are the same. The candidate is the product in May 2022.

To date, the country is estimated to have over 52 million voters. And Class D and E voters comprise the biggest lot, I believe. But given their economic plight, Class D and E are always a vulnerable group, in my opinion. And thus, exploitable as well. Their voting behavior, and outcome, can be influenced or manipulated. While this can be said for Classes A, B, C as well, I am still inclined to believe that D and E are more susceptible to manipulation.

But, even shunting aside economic classes, and internet penetration, I also believe that a majority of Filipinos from all classes have mobile phones; many have Facebook accounts; and, those with social media will have some form of data service or internet connection available to them. And this makes data leaks, particularly of personal information, more valuable to the unscrupulous.

I recall an instance some time back when I overheard the garbage collector in our neighborhood, during one his runs, teasing the house help next door about her not having a mobile phone. “Meron kang trabaho, wala kang cellphone? [You are working, but you don’t have a cellphone?],” I recall the man chiding the female neighbor. Obviously, she just didn’t want to give him her number.

The 2022 presidential race may turn out to be a tight race. A majority winner is highly unlikely. About 30 years ago, in 1992, Fidel V. Ramos won the presidential race with just about 24% of the votes. The average margin since then, in the last four elections from 1998 to 2016, is just slightly over 40%. In 2016, President Duterte won with 38.57% of the votes.

Based on a national survey conducted in the second week of September, Candidate 1 enjoyed the lead, accounting for 20% of the votes, enjoying the advantage in Visayas and Mindanao, and among Class D and E voters. She was followed by Candidate 2 with 15% of the votes, enjoying the advantage in Metro Manila and Luzon, and running second among Classes A, B, C and D, and third in Class E.

Candidates 3 and 4 accounted for 13% and 12% of the votes, respectively, while Candidate 5 trailed with just 9% of the votes. Candidate 3 had fair showing in Metro Manila, Luzon, and Visayas, but trailed in Mindanao. He also led among Class A, B, C voters. Candidate 4 had strong support in Visayas and Mindanao, and among Class E voters.

Given these poll results, it is obvious that the 2022 presidential election is not going to be lopsided in favor of an overly strong candidate. The race is practically even, particularly for Candidates 2, 3, and 4. And any advantage of Candidate 1 at this point can be overturned by a number of factors. A lot of things can happen between now and May 2022. And, in a presidential race, eight months to election day is an eternity.

Expect more reports of data leaks and data breaches in the weeks to come. And expect to hear or read more about social media, Facebook profiles, and manipulation of personal information and data to influence voting behavior and election outcome. We now live in the Digital Age, and technology will play an even larger role, and be a stronger influence, on voting behavior and electoral outcome.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council