Wiretapping Cory Aquino

Orly Mercado

Posted on May 4, 2007

The news from Manila that a listening device was discovered connected to the telephone line of former Philippine President Cory Aquino did not come as a surprise. I was more saddened than indignant, almost resigned to the realities of politics at home. But it reminded me of one of the rare visits I had to her office, when she was President.

I remember then Press Secretary Teddy Locsin, in his jogging attire, giving her the latest developments on the most important news of the day: her firing her Secretary of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile. It was the time of coup plots and coup attempts. She reveled in the fact that the announcement got Enrile by surprise. “That only means that my telephones here are not tapped” she told then Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo.

I could not forget seeing the Commander-in-Chief relieved that she was not being bugged by her armed forces. I am sure that Cory Aquino has shrugged off this incident. She has been through worse. The danger is in the growing acceptance that these things happen, that they are par for the course.

When I was Defense Secretary, and was locked in controversy with the highest ranking generals over reforms in the military establishment, I had technicians regularly sweep my office for listening devices. Every time I discussed something confidential with my staff, I had my radio on, an old trick I learned when I was a student activist.

The issue of privacy and civil liberties is on the table now because of terrorism. Of course even the most mentally challenged operative cannot by any stretch of imagination use this excuse for bugging Cory Aquino. This incident may set us further back in the effort to find a balance between competing interests of law enforcement, privacy rights, and technological innovation.

As we rely more and more on electronic communication for almost everything we do in our daily lives, we also expose ourselves not only to government spying, but to criminals who have made identity theft a real nightmare of a threat. Any government functionary involved in national security and police work should know that warrantless phone call interceptions are illegal.

In a nation with weak institutions, the reality is that almost no one is spared the threat of eavesdropping. Bugging Cory Aquino has made this abundantly clear. So in the meantime, all that we can do is be constantly on guard for our privacy. For many decades now, I would never say anything on a landline or mobile phone I would not say in a crowded elevator. It is a habit I am not sorry to have acquired.

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