Beyond tweets: Peeling layers of DFA’s passport mess

Paterno Esmaquel II
The Twitter rhetoric of Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr draws eyeballs to a multilayered controversy facing the Department of Foreign Affairs

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsin Jr shocked Filipinos again when he threatened to “fucking kill” those who continue to require birth certificates for passport renewals. 

Putang ina (Son of a bitch). Not for passport renewal. If anyone asks you, tell me who and I will fucking kill him/her,” Locsin said in a tweet on Monday, February 19, when a Twitter user asked him if a birth certificate was still required for passport renewals. 

Locsin’s rhetoric on Twitter drew more eyeballs to a multilayered controversy facing the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

It was the same thing that happened on January 8, when Locsin tweeted that a previous contractor “took all” passport data because it “got pissed” when its contract was terminated. Locsin’s tweets triggered a firestorm, prompting investigations from government agencies. (READ: DFA to privacy commission: We’re in control of passport data)

But what is the DFA passport mess all about?

It’s not just about data management. It’s not just about an allegedly anomalous deal. And it’s not just about the slow delivery of passport services.

It’s all of the above – on top of having a top diplomat who tweets about these a lot. 

The House of Representatives scheduled a February 6 investigation into the passport controversy, but quickly adjourned the hearing, said Bayan Muna Representative Isagani Carlos Zarate. This was after Senior Deputy Majority Leader Rodante Marcoleta said all previous questions about passports, such as those involving delays, had already been answered, according to Zarate. 

Zarate said he strongly disagrees, and that valid questions about passports remain. 

Rappler peels the different layers of the passport controversy facing the DFA:

Layer No. 1: How the DFA manages passport data

Investigations by government agencies, including the National Privacy Commission, have aimed to unearth how effectively the DFA is managing passport data. This was after Locsin alarmed the public by tweeting that a previous contractor ran away with passport data – as the Philippines was still reeling from a 2016 data leak that involved 70 million voters’ records.

Locsin, in his January 8 tweet, had said former government contractor Oberthur “took all” passport data after its contract ended. The passport contractor is now Asian Productivity Organization (APO) Production Unit Incorporated, a government printer.

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<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Everybody agrees with me that old passport is 1000% ID better than birth certificate: the holder applied for it and not someone else for a baby. But we are rebuilding our files from scratch because previous outsourced passport maker took all the data when contract terminated. <a href=”https://t.co/cPjC3w7kAt”>https://t.co/cPjC3w7kAt</a></p>&mdash; Teddy Locsin Jr. (@teddyboylocsin) <a href=”https://twitter.com/teddyboylocsin/status/1082634877000855552?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>January 8, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script> 

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Days later, on January 15, Locsin backtracked on his original tweet. 

Locsin explained that data, while “not run-away-able,” was “made inaccessible.” He said that APO assured him “they were able to access the data,” but there was “not much use” for these, and there were “parts corrupted.” 

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<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Data is not run-away-able but made inaccessible. Access denied. But APO assured me they were able to access but not much use and parts corrupted. APO agrees with me that old passports are best evidence of identity and join me in despising those who don&#39;t agree with me. <a href=”https://t.co/ln6blIwbIB”>https://t.co/ln6blIwbIB</a></p>&mdash; Teddy Locsin Jr. (@teddyboylocsin) <a href=”https://twitter.com/teddyboylocsin/status/1084988463429181440?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>January 15, 2019</a></blockquote>
<script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

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Michael Dalumpines, APO production unit chairperson, told reporterswalang natangay” (there was nothing stolen). 

He said Oberthur turned over all passport production equipment and data to APO. He added that APO’s information technology staff “were able to do something about it,” that’s why they got to restore everything.

APO and Oberthur have already been the subject of congressional probes.

In November 2017, the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee cited problems when Oberthur “turned over the old system to the DFA in January 2015.” The committee made these findings after an investigation sponsored by Representative Aniceto Bertiz III.

The problems inherited from Oberthur included the following, according to the House foreign affairs committee:

  • Non-operating AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) due to non-renewal of licensing, which resulted in compromised security
  • Outdated data capturing machines
  • No data management system (DMS), such that all document filings and retrievals are being done manually
  • Old operating system which can no longer be supported by Microsoft nor run on another operating system
  • Filled-to-capacity data storage for applicants’ information
  • Limited number of functioning printers (4 manual Dilleta printers with a capacity of 6,000 passports per day)
  • Passport personalization backlog of more than 200,000
  • Breakdown of hardware and servers
  • No disaster recovery site, redundant system, and fire suppression system 

In Committee Report No. 495, the House foreign affairs committee reported that, “to make the old system operational while waiting for the integrated e-passport system, the APO assisted the DFA and implemented the following”:

  • Restructured and repaired the DFA e-passport databases at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) data center
  • Increased the storage capacity of the system
  • Transferred the e-passport operations from BSP Quezon City to the APO High Security Plant in Batangas

The committee reported that “these interventions reduced the passport production and issuance backlogs significantly from more than 200,000 to less than 20,000 in August 2017.”

Fast forward to January 2019, the question now is whether Oberthur turned over the passport data to APO.

A Senate investigation can verify if indeed this happened, and if the passport production contracts specified a plan for the migration of data.

Experts stressed the need for the DFA to focus on good data management, especially because it is handling e-passports.

“This is actually a clarion call to all government agencies – we’ve been saying this – to review their contracts,” said NPC Commissioner Mon Liboro in an interview on ANC’s Early Edition.

A crucial question, said Liboro, is whether the contracts conform to the law, “meaning you cannot surrender or diminish the rights of data subjects in projects where data processing is involved.”

“I’m sure our government is transforming, and it’s transforming digitally, and government will be entering into future contracts with providers and suppliers and contractors. It’s best that they understand what the law provides when it comes to protecting data,” Liboro said.

Layer No. 2: An anomalous passport deal?

Critics have questioned the joint venture between government printer APO and private firm United Graphic Expression Corporation (UGEC) to print e-passports. Oppositors argue that this joint venture is illegal because APO’s contract with the DFA prohibits subcontracting. APO said, on the other hand, that the subcontracting arrangement does not involve passport printing. Locsin said only a Senate investigation can settle this issue once and for all.

Locsin’s predecessor, former foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr, had claimed that “the real issue of the passport mess” is the awarding of passport production to APO “without any bidding.”

He said that “for one mysterious reason in February of 2014, the DFA issued a purchase order contract” in favor of APO. 

He said the government-controlled APO, in turn, subcontracted a private firm, UGEC, “in violation of the law.”

It was allegedly the entry of APO and UGEC that prompted Oberthur to withdraw. At the time Oberthur withdrew, said Yasay, the company had already set up the “personalization system” for passport data, and had been assisting the DFA and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) in running the system “for free.”

Yasay called for an investigation into this allegedly anomalous passport deal.

Dalumpines explained to Rappler that APO indeed subcontracted UGEC, but not to print passports.

“UGEC is not involved in the printing of the passports,” Dalumpines said. “UGEC’s role as our joint venture partner is to procure equipment and raw materials, finance, that are needed by our printing plant in Batangas. Essentially capacity-building only.”

Locsin told Rappler that the DFA will not investigate this passport deal. “Why will I do that?”

When asked about Yasay’s call for an investigation, Locsin said in an interview after the House briefing, “He should investigate it.”

“If he wants, he can. In fact why doesn’t he investigate it, and then we’ll let him bring it because he’s made some very serious allegations about the integrity of Congress, and I vouch for the integrity of Congress. I don’t vouch for his integrity, only the integrity of Congress,” said Locsin, who was Makati 1st District representative from 2001 to 2010.

Bayan Muna’s Zarate, however, said it is still valid to question the joint venture between APO and UGEC. “Ano ang accountability ng joint venture na ito?” (What is the accountability of this joint venture?) 

Layer No. 3: DFA passport services 

Locsin’s tweets also prompted the public to reexamine the efficiency of the DFA’s passport services. Future government investigations can reevaluate the DFA’s efforts to improve these services, such as preventing syndicates or travel agencies from hoarding passport appointment slots, and reducing the number of no-shows in passport appointments.

Locsin sought to address one problem: He recently released an order scrapping the birth certificate requirement for passport services. 

The DFA also said it has fixed delays in the passport appointment system.

In 2017, the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee noted that the DFA appointment system contributed to the delay in passport issuances. The committee said the DFA needs to decongest applications from Metro Manila, increase application slots, and prevent the problems caused by no-show applicants.

The DFA tried to resolve these problems by increasing passport appointment slots and starting to implement ePayment to dissuade no-show applicants. In August 2017, the DFA removed from travel agencies the 1,200 passport appointment slots that used to be reserved to them daily. “We want to give back the appointment slots to the Filipino public,” said the DFA’s Ricarte Abejuela III.

A check on the DFA passport appointment system shows improvements from the time when applicants had to wait for months before getting appointments. In Metro Manila alone, for example, the earliest available passport appointment – as of February 21 – is on February 26. 

How long can the DFA sustain these efforts?


In the face of all these, a side issue that emerged is Locsin’s tweeting habits. The passport problem recently became the talk of the town, after all, because of the tweets of Locsin himself. 

Is Locsin tweeting too much?

Did Locsin make a mistake when he first tweeted that Oberthur “took all” passport data, only to backtrack and say there was no data runaway after all?

“Absolutely not,” he said, when Rappler asked him about this. “I never make mistakes. Really.

“They said I am misinformed. I said no, I was overinformed,” he added, referring to Yasay saying that Locsin was “misinformed” about the issue.

He pointed out “there were different versions” on why the DFA needed birth certificates for passport renewals, and these reasons included “loss of data.”

“But in the end APO told me very nicely, ‘Sir, that is your most useless requirement.’ And that’s it. And also a lot of top guns in the DFA said it’s a totally useless requirement,” Locsin said.

While Locsin often brings up this issue on birth certificates, different layers of the passport controversy have yet to be resolved in the eyes of the public. – Rappler.com

Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.