Eliseo Rio Jr. did not go quietly into the night after his resignation from his post as undersecretary of operations of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) was finally accepted by President Duterte last May, after a wait of four months. His disturbing revelations since then should prod vigilant attention from the public.
Most serious is the former acting DICT chief’s claim that he was “eased out” from his position because of his repeated questioning of the selection of StaySafe.ph as the country’s “official social distancing, health condition reporting, and contact tracing system” to help in the fight against COVID-19, even if, as Rio put it, the app is “ineffective” and “approved without any technical vetting.”
In a series of social media posts last week, the retired brigadier general detailed how StaySafe, developed by software solutions company Multisys Technologies Corp., is simply not going to work as the developers behind it would like the government to believe.
“Since StaySafe was made the official contact tracing app of the government on April 29, 2020, it has NEVER been used for contract tracing,” Rio said, mainly because some two months since it was selected, less than 1 percent of Filipinos have the StaySafe app on their phones, light years away from the estimated 60 percent needed for digital contact tracing to work.
“At the rate of a million registered within two months, it will take more than 10 years for StaySafe to become effective. Also, since the app will work only on smartphones and only in places where there are mobile internet services, this may lessen further its effectiveness as there are still around 20 million 2G phones out there. Now if this 10 years is the timeline of the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force) in selecting StaySafe, then heaven help us.”
There are issues, too, relating to the app’s privacy protocols, raising concerns over the extraction of too much personal data that could be used even after the pandemic is over, such as for espionage or surveillance. “It’s like borderline spyware,” said data privacy expert Israel Brizuela, quoted in a Rappler report.
“The only permission needed is just the locator tracker for contact tracing, yet the developer insists to have a number of permissions like access to the phone’s camera and to modify and delete content in your phone’s storage. People are not properly informed that when you register to StaySafe, these permissions are by default granted,” warned Rio, an electronics and communications engineer and board topnotcher with extensive credentials and experience in information technology, both in the military and in government.
Given these red flags, Rio said he insisted that the government tap multiple providers to address the different levels of connectivity and types of mobile phones used across the country. He was able to convince Carlito Galvez, chief implementer of the National Action Plan Against COVID-19, and thus, on May 13, Galvez wrote a letter to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III proposing the creation of an Information Systems Task Group with Rio as chair.
That plan, however, was not approved, and Rio’s resignation, offered to President Duterte on Jan. 31 this year over concerns arising from the disbursement of about P300 million in intelligence funds under the office of DICT Secretary Gregorio Honasan, was suddenly accepted and announced on May 22. “I calmly accepted the President’s decision, but I knew then that it was this unreasoned interest on StaySafe that led to it,” said Rio.
The government’s obtuseness has proven costly, he lamented. “Had they approved the COVID-19 Central Platform endorsed by both Honasan and Galvez submitted to them last April 29, this rise in the curve that we are experiencing now would not have happened.” And if the government insists on relying on StaySafe as the country’s lone contract tracing app, “we would never be able to flatten this pandemic curve, which will mean more deaths and may damage our economy that may take years to recover.”
Multisys CEO David Almirol Jr. has objected to Rio’s claims as being “unfair.” StaySafe is “a solution”—“not a perfect solution but it is a tool,” he said, an app that was “built to save lives.” He also rued that “We Filipinos don’t trust each other anymore.”
Unfortunately, Rio’s revelations, and the circumstances of his removal from office at this critical juncture, will only occasion more suspicion and mistrust at this government’s motivations and methods in fighting the pandemic.
“This is precisely the problem of this country, it is still ruled by whom you know and not by what you know. And these are people powerful enough to remove people standing in their way,” declared Rio. Fighting words from a former insider and now private citizen who’s not taking it anymore.
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