The House committee on the welfare of children on Wednesday, August 25, approved a bill that seeks to strengthen the government’s anti-human trafficking efforts but a progressive lawmaker expressed concern over a provision that would allow wiretapping to catch suspects.
The panel approved the substitute bill to House bills 5609, 5651, 5684, 8295, 8534, and 1239. Section 8b of the proposed measure allows the interception of communication – an exemption to the country’s anti-wiretapping law – in cases of child trafficking, upon a written order from a court.
Under the proposed measure, law enforcement officers “acting in an undercover capacity and recording a communication with a person reasonably believed to have committed, is committing, or is about to commit” human trafficking will not need a court order to do so.
Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas asked during Wednesday’s House hearing what kind of circumstances would require an undercover operation, and who would determine who is “reasonably believed” to be a suspect.
“Paano kapag walang napatunayan sa hinihinalang nag-commit, nag-co-commit, or mag-co-commit at na-intercept na ng law enforcement officer ang communications? Puwede bang magkaso ang na-subject sa surveillance?” asked Brosas.
(What if nothing was verified with the person suspected to have committed, is committing, or will commit, and the law enforcement officer had already intercepted their communications? Can the person subjected to the surveillance file a case?)
Lawyer Noel Eballe from the International Justice Mission shed light to the proposed provision, which the nongovernment organization had pushed for. According to their data, 77% of successful investigations they monitored involved undercover engagements.
“In these cases, the undercover officer is party to the conversation. The law enforcement officer records his or her communications with the suspect. This is through text, phone calls, video calls, chat conversations in the computer. These have been presented and have been accepted as good and critical evidence during inquest or preliminary investigation,” said Eballe.
Eballe said the provision provides a clarification that when the law enforcement officer is party to the conversation itself, this would not be considered wiretapping.
Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Villar also backed the need for the wiretapping provision. She said that all failed prosecutions for online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC) involved lack of evidence.
“[The Department of Justice does] have a good rate of conviction for OSAEC cases, however, there are still a lot we are not able to capture, arrest, or file a case against because of lack of evidence, and this is what we really need,” said Villar.
Villar said that there would be “safeguards” to prevent abuses.
The bill, after being approved by the committee, will be subject to plenary debates in the House.
Possible dangers of wiretapping
“If there are no safeguards, this discussion may be too broad, and like we have said, we are balancing the right to privacy and our fundamental rights,” Brosas said in Filipino.
Although she did not mention it, Brosas’ concern is reminiscent of a red flag raised over the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, believed by experts to be a weapon to crack down on dissent. (READ: ‘Terror law’: The pet bill of the generals)
The anti-terrorism law, which is being contested at the Supreme Court, allows authorities to wiretap suspected terrorists for up to 90 days. Under the law, if the person charged is acquitted, there is no automatic punishment for law enforcersand the acquitted person can only opt to file counter-charges and endure another trial. – Rappler.com