The kerfuffle over the alleged loss of passport data began—as many controversies do these days—as a post on the social media platform Twitter.
In response to a query, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted on Jan. 9 that some passport holders needed to present their birth certificates when renewing their travel documents because the previous contractor, a French company, had “made off with [the] data” when their contract was prematurely terminated and a new deal was cut with APO Production Unit, a state-owned company.
“Because previous contractor got pissed when terminated it made off with data,” Locsin wrote in his post. “We did nothing about it or couldn't because we were in the wrong. It won't happen again. Passports pose national security issues and cannot be kept back by private entities. Data belongs to the state.”
Locsin also suggested that corruption and kickbacks were behind the awarding of a new contract, which as far as we can tell, was done in 2015.
Locsin’s early tweets triggered reactions that were hardly unexpected.
First, the National Privacy Commission immediately announced that it would investigate the loss of passport data—which many in the media misreported as a data breach.
To be clear, there was no data breach or hacking involved. If we were to take Secretary Locsin at his word, the previous contractor who already had acccess to all that data simply “made off” with it.
Opposition senators were quick to pounce on the issue, too, saying the Department of Foreign Affairs “had a lot of explaining to do” and taking the Duterte administration to task for “gross incompetence” as evidenced by its inability to safeguard private, personal data.
But several days later, Secretary Locsin corrected himself, saying the French contractor had not taken any data after all, but had simply made it “inaccessible” and that from henceforth, no birth certificate was needed because an old passport was enough ID for a renewal.
“Data is not run-away-able but made inaccessible,” Locsin tweeted on Jan. 15. “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't agree with me.”
The Senate may yet investigate the passport mess, but we suggest it do so, not to uncover any alleged data breach—because it is now apparent there wasn’t one. Rather, we suggest the senators examine why the original passport contract was terminated and if there was, as Secretary Locsin suggests, any corruption involved.
Opposition senators, in particular, should find it instructive that the new contract was awarded in 2015 by the previous Liberal Party administration with which most of them were allied.
What lessons might we derive from all this?
One lesson certainly is not to jump to any conclusions before all the facts are in hand. Opposition Senator Riza Hontiveros’ knee-jerk reaction was to blame the Duterte administration, even though the facts indicate that the problem began with its predecessor, the Aquino administration, with which she is closely allied.
A second, and no less important lesson, is that public officials need to exercise some caution and get their facts straight before they post potentially damaging half-truths on social media. We are all for transparency in government, but public officials need to rein in their Twitter thumbs and get all the facts, and not impulsively blast out tweets off the top of their heads.