Thursday, February 24, 2005

I'm a drug addict, you're a terrorist

How will a national identification system (NIS) help in preventing or minimizing crime or terrorist attacks? The closest thing to answers, that I could find, is a statement from Ms. Gloria Arroyo that "[the NIS would] deprive terrorists of mobility and anonymity" and an opinion by a pundit that "those found without I.D.s, in that case, will be regarded as beyond the pale of the law and subjected to further investigation".

These statements are, apparently, based on the assumption that the bad guys can't possibly acquire IDs. This assumption is completely wrong. It is a fact that all of the terrorists, involved in the 11 Sep. 2001 attack on the USA, possessed ID cards which passed muster by American authorities. It is also a fact that Israel, which employs a sophisticated ID system, almost regularly suffer from terrorist attacks. A recent study by Privacy International states:

Of the 25 countries that have been most adversely affected by terrorism since 1986, eighty per cent have national identity cards, one third of which incorporate biometrics. This research was unable to uncover any instance where the presence of an identity card system in those countries was seen as a significant deterrent to terrorist activity.

Most proponents of a NIS are actually aware of the fact that it won't deter criminal or terrorist activity so they skirt the issue by praising the advantages and benefits that one would get if the NIS were implemented. They extol that, compared to the current situation, it would be very much easier to deal with government agencies since all information about you are readily available.

Well, if it's easy for any government or private institution to access your information, it's only logical that just about anyone, with enough motivation, can easily access to it as well. Let's say someone was able to get a hold of a duplicate of your ID by bribing a lowly paid worker in the place where the IDs are being made. That someone would then be able to, say, get a loan from the GSIS using your ID or transfer the ownership of your home to another name. Identity theft is quite common hereabouts, but we rarely hear or read about it since almost none of those commit this crime ever get caught. With all our eggs in one basket, as it were, I could just imagine how much easier life would be for identity thieves.

Some supporters of the NIS, like Mr. Angelo Reyes, are informed enough to know that their position is indefensible so they don't forward any argument at all but instead simply mouth words like "If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear".

Indeed, most of us have nothing to hide and are not afraid of giving out personal information. In fact, we do this on a regular basis such as when requesting for a savings account or applying for credit cards from banks or getting a subscription from cellular service providers. However, some of us are gravely afraid if giving same information to government agencies. Private companies normally employ only professionals and don't tolerate incompetence and dishonesty. When we give information to these companies, we have a certain measure a security that the information will not be misused. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our government agencies. When a country receives a perceived corruption index of 2.6 out of 10, it is extremely difficult to trust its agencies. If something involves the current Philippine government, we may have nothing to hide, but we most assuredly have something to fear.

Like Mr. Reyes, the presidential press secretary, Mr. Ignacio Bunye, does not present any argument but instead simply insult the intelligence of those who oppose the NIS. "Their fears are more imagined than real. If we look at the experience of countries implementing a national ID system, we have yet to hear of cases, decided or otherwise, involving violation of human rights," Mr. Bunye says.

Well, we also don't hear of cases involving the manufacturers of balisongs. What we do hear about are cases of robbery, murder, rape, etc. perpetrated with the use of a balisong. We also hear about cases of fraud (as in credit card fraud), misrepresentation (as in someone pretending to be somebody else, like a government official) and theft. These crimes would be trivial to commit if the NIS were implemented in the Philippines.

My main objection to the NIS is the issue of cost. One estimate is PHP1.6B, based on PHP35 per ID card assuming an adult population of 45.3 million. It would definitely cost more since the estimate doesn't seem to consider the support systems (computer hardware and software, card readers, etc.) and manpower (a new government agency would probably be necessary) needed for its implementation. There's also the continuing cost of maintaining the personnel and equipment. Perhaps that amount of money would be more wisely spent on providing better equipment and training to, and improving the intelligence capabilities of, the police and military. It seems good intelligence led to the arrest of some of the Valentine's day bombers. Better training, equipment and intelligence might've prevented the bombing in the first place.

More importantly is the cost of privacy or loss thereof. How much do we value our privacy? If I were to renew my driver's license right now, I would be required to prove that I am not an illegal drug user by giving a government recognized agency certain body fluids. If you want to go to a shopping mall or ride the LRT or MRT, you would be required to prove that you are not a gun-toting, bomb-carrying terrorist by submitting to bag and body searches. We have already lost some of our constitutionally enshrined right to privacy, can we afford to loose more?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

NTC's indecisiveness and number portability

For one reason or another, the NTC is finding it very difficult to issue a ruling on the complaint of Smart and Globe (19 and 12.5 million subscribers respectively according to certain reports) against Sun (1.1 million subscribers). If I may suggest, the NTC should contact the DTI and ask them what they would do if Shoemart and Robinsons started complaining that Divisoria Mall is giving them unfair competetion.

The complaint alleges that Sun's 24/7 promo is "predatory pricing" and legally questionable since Sun didn't follow NTC's required procedure in implementing it. The NTC should not have even considered these issues since it clearly benefits the consuming public. The NTC, like all government agencies, should at least try to make the impression that their main concern is the welfare of the public.

The complainants also allege that, because of the success of the promo, Sun's infrastructure is being overwhelmed causing unacceptably poor, by NTC standards, service performance. Assuming there is some truth to this allegation, the subscriber should be the one who decides on what is acceptable or not.

Nowadays, one can switch from one provider to another for a minimal cost. There are, however, certain situations wherein switching providers might be difficult or expensive. In such cases, number portability would be a great benefit.

Number portability basically means being able to switch service providers while retaining your telephone number (including prefix). This system is already being implemented in the USA and several European countries.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Enforcing the law is not always the right thing to do

A news article titled "Vietnamese refugees with fake passports caught by BI agents" (13 Feb 2005, Manila Bulletin, page 2) got me thinking.

[The same story is shown on the website but the MB printed version provides more details. I can't find it on MB online.]

Basically, the story is about 4 Vietnamese (1 adult male, 2 adult females and a young boy) refugees who were apprehended by Bureau of Immigration (BI) agents for possession of tampered passports. The adult male was able to escape, the 2 adult females are currently detained by the BI and the boy was turned over to the DSWD.

The MB dead tree version additionally reports that the Vietnamese were about to board a PAL flight destined for Ho Chi Minh City. They are apparently part of around 1,000 refugees currently living in a refugee camp called "Vietville" established by the United Nations in Palawan. In 1996, when the refugee program ended, the Philippine government was in the process of repatriating these refugees but stopped the exercise because of protests from several groups which included the CBCP.

The article reminded me of the film "The Terminal". In the movie, an airport official advises his subordinate that "enforcing the law is not always the right thing to do", or words to that effect.

In the case of the Vietnamese refugees, wouldn't it have been far easier and cheaper, for the government, to simply let them go? Eventually, the BI would have to deport them to their country of origin, which is, prior to their arrest, exactly where they intended to go (at their own expense) in the first place!

I fully understand that no one is above the the law but in this instance, is enforcing it the right thing to do?

Monday, February 14, 2005

Free Software

This is in reference to the article titled "No such thing as a free launch" (sic) by Conrado R. Banal III ("Breaktime", PDI 10 Feb 2005).

Mr. Banal seems to be either very confused or is trying to deliberately mislead his readers. Free software, for Mr. Banal's information, is software which, once obtained, may be used, copied, studied, modified and redistributed. In other words, the term "free", is used in the context of free as in free speech or freedom of speech (malaya in Tagalog). This is very different from Mr. Banal's erroneous understanding of free as is free lunch (libre or walang bayad in Tagalog). All of his statements regarding Linux's "freeness" are therefore pointless.

In the proper context, almost all Linux software are indeed free. I should point out that there are also quite a lot of free software available for Windows such as Firefox (a web browser which is a "safer" alternative for MS Internet Explorer) and (a productivity suite similar to and mostly compatible with MS Office).

Mr. Banal then goes on to cite obtuse "facts" in an effort to malign Linux. One can only guess what his motivations are for doing so. In the IT biz, this is called FUD or fear, uncertainty and doubt. Spreading FUD is a marketing strategy usually employed by companies with inferior products. More often than not, FUD is usually associated with a certain company called Microsoft.

He writes that certain European outfits that "decided" to switch to Linux are rethinking their move. Either Mr. Banal is a bare-faced liar or is utterly misinformed. Since he didn't cite any actual "fact", I will assume he is referring to the switchover of the German Parliament and the Munich City (Germany) government from Windows to Linux. These are the two cases which Mr. Banal wrote about in an earlier article, imaginatively titled "No such thing as free hunch" ("Breaktime", PDI 09 Nov 2004).

In the case of the German Parliament, some network problems (Windows clients can't connect to the internet via the Linux servers) were encountered during the switchover phase, but eventually fixed. I suspect the problem was caused by Microsoft's penchant for "improving" published standards.

In the Munich City government case (Project LiMux [project site in German]), concerns about software patents briefly delayed the bidding process of the migration project. These were eventually cleared up. The migration process is currently ongoing and is targeted for completion by 2008.

Note that in both cases the changeover to Linux were either successfully completed or currently being implemented. Mr. Banal's statement in his 09 Nov. 2004 article that they "had to stop [a similar] changeover to Linux" is an outright lie. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine the actual facts (hint:

Mr. Banal then writes: "To make the 'free' operating system run other programs, you have to use software that you can only buy from -- where else? -- Linux." I have never seen or heard a more nonsensical statement as this, even from a congressman. There is no such commercial entity called "Linux" where one can buy anything. Mr. Banal is probably referring to one of those companies which provide Linux distributions such as Red Hat or SuSE. If that's the case, he is still hopelessly wrong. One can choose to buy a Linux distribution, but since all Linux distributions are based on free software, one can also obtain it for free (free as in libre). It may be freely downloaded from one of several hundreds (more likely thousands) of web and FTP sites. The difference is that you get a nice box, printed manuals and some technical support if you buy.

Another FUD from Mr. Banal is that according to a certain website ( 19.2% of hacker attacks were against Windows and an "amazing" 60% against Linux. Like most statistics that "journalists" use to forward their agenda, the numbers mentioned are meaningless. First, Mr. Banal neglects to mention that the attacks are actually "website attacks" or attacks on the web server software or extensions to it. Since a web server is not an integral part of any operating system, wether it's running on Linux or Windows is irrelevant. Second, he "forgot" to mention that the numbers are not based on any scientific study but on "user submitted" data. This means that anybody could go to the zone-h website and say "Hey doods, I just attacked the site. I am leet haxor!" Nowadays, defacing a website is so trivial that even Jinggoy or Bong could do it if they were so inclined.

If one were to visit the zone-h website the very first thing he'll notice are "Advisories". Advisories are something like press releases issued by companies or individuals to alert the public on the existence of vulnerabilities or weaknesses in an operating system or a piece of software. A vulnerability is usually a programming error in software which may be taken advantage of by a malicious user to gain access to or, in the worst case, total control of somebody else's computer. Mr. Banal completely ignored the fact that most of the advisories were for Windows or Windows applications which are difficult, if not impossible, to uninstall.

Mr. Banal, if you don't want to use or are afraid of using Linux, fine, but please don't use your position to discourage other people from doing so.

Currently, Linux and open source software in general are at a state where it is a viable replacement for Windows and proprietary Windows software. Philippine government institutions and LGUs would greatly benefit by opting for or switching to Linux. The issue of cost which Mr. Banal tried to use in his arguments does not apply in the Philippine setting. We are still a largely non-computerized country so the cost of retraining or re-programming of specialized software, which is majority of the cost in the European scenarios, is probably negligible. We also have more than enough capable IT professionals who can support Linux such that it's not absolutely necessary to buy technical support from foreign companies. Heck, we even have a Linux distribution of our own called Bayanihan Linux!

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