Since news of a rogue contractor employed by the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) “making off” with passport data broke, the Net has become a buzzing hive of overnight armchair data security “experts”. Some social media “influencers” such as the venerable “Momblogger” Noemi Dado even suggest that the way to go to prevent similar mishaps from happening again is through blockchain technology — the technology that is supposedly behind the Bitcoin and other “cryptocurrency” scams that fuelled an “investment” histeria in 2018.
The fact is, there really is nothing to be shrill about. Although there is cause to be outraged over a serious lapse in security measures applied by the DFA in managing contractors involved in developing its technology capabilities, the fact is, there really is not much any one crook can do with Filipino passport data. To give us a bit of perspective, the amount of high quality and actionable data we willingly surrender to Facebook vastly dwarfs that of the data sets the DFA’s contractors allegedly “made off” with.
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The key words here are highlighted above: quality and actionable.
Facebook may not have as complete personal information about us as the DFA (i.e. it has a spotty record of our real names, dates of birth and residential addresses, for example) but it has something far more valuable: our purchasing and political preferences, likes and dislikes, what memes and “stories” we pause our incessant scrolling to look at or click into for more details, a timestamped text archive of our intimate chats with family, friends and lovers, geographical footprints of our historical whereabouts, an enormous trove of digitised facial data that it correlates with our tags and mentions, and much much more. Indeed, Facebook does not even need to require us to provide authentication documents such as birth certificates, NBI clearances, and proofs of residence to really get to know us — because it can infer all of that from what we voluntarily key into its portfolio of apps and websites.
The types of data sets Facebook and other social media platforms have amassed is fundamentally different to the data “stolen” from the DFA that every social media “expert” and her cat is shrieking about. This is data that provides actionable insight to Facebook in the form of an ability to serve targetted ads and develop a profile to model entire societies unprecedented in its usefulness for predicting collective behaviour and the use of this insight to develop effective marketing and political campaigns. Now this is where the big bucks are made and why these organisations are so powerful and valuable. People that rise to power on the back of capability to use Big Data to win elections and sell products are the ones we really should be worried about. Two-bit crooks who “make off” with data used to print passports not even worth the paper they are printed on are really the least of our concerns.
But here’s the thing. Despite several years of fear-mongering over the power Facebook, Google, and other Big Corporate data collectors are suspected to be wielding on society has not really resulted in catastrophes that are beyond any one person’s personal control. The data President Donald Trump used to become leader of the free world was also available to his competitors. Most important of all, the data he used mirrored a fundamental vulnerability of human nature — a predisposition to emotional reaction over intelligent response.
It is, indeed, ironic that the response we are seeing today surrounding the DFA data breach is identical in nature to what got Trump elected to the US presidency to begin with — a response fuelled by a bunch of shills shrieking about something that is, essentially, of no consequence. It is yet another case of the wrong arguments winning over a gullible public.
Filipinos should get a grip and think before reacting to the ill-thought-out drivel spewed by their “thought leaders”. That way, the right perspectives can prevail for a change and, on that outcome, the right solutions can be found.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.