FILIPINO consumers must become responsible digital citizens to protect themselves from internet-based crimes, and while there are existing laws against cybercrimes, the government and the private sector must work together to educate and empower the people against falling prey to cybercriminals, an advocacy group said.
“The pandemic has pushed most of us to shift our activities online,” said lawyer Tim Abejo, co-convenor of CitizenWatch Philippines. “We now do our banking, shopping, schooling, over the internet. We order food online and do our work from home. These have their benefits, of course, but they also carry great risk.”
Abejo said that while these internet transactions result in convenience and efficiency, they also bring the danger of abuse and exploitation in many forms. “There are many who are out to take advantage of unsuspecting internet users. We have to make sure that our people arm themselves against these online predators.”
During the pandemic period, the number of cyber tips received by the Department of Justice – Office of Cybercrime tripled to 1.2 million in 2020 from just 400,000 the previous year. Most common among internet crimes are fraud, sexual abuse and exploitation, bullying, and identity theft.
Targeting the vulnerable
Abejo cited the UNICEF finding that prolonged lockdowns have made children and young people more vulnerable because these resulted in extended hours online.
“For two years now, they cannot go out to play or go to school or to meet their friends,” said Abejo.
“Instead, they are constantly online to study, play or socialize. This provides predators the opportunity to manipulate them for their own gains.”
Meanwhile, the public has also seen a rise in incidents of hacking of online bank accounts.
“Sure, there have been arrests. But these people are always one step ahead and they are bound to come up with newer, more sophisticated ways to launch cyber-attacks,” Abejo said.
The Bankers Association of the Philippines said more than P1 billion was lost last year due to cyber fraud.
“These criminals are so ingenious,” Abejo said. “They dupe people into disclosing sensitive information through innocent- or legitimate-looking emails, text messages, or even social media posts.”
He said that ransomware is becoming more prevalent in the Philippines, where malicious software – malware – gains access to a computer system, which would become inaccessible unless the user pays ransom.
Laws and public private partnerships
“To be sure, there is no dearth of laws protecting the public from cybercrimes,” Abejo said.
“The laws range from the broader Cybercrime Prevention Act to data privacy, to preventing online sexual abuse and exploitation, to those protecting the integrity of electronic transactions or strengthening financial literacy for consumers in the digital economy,” he said, citing that the real challenge is making the people aware that these laws do exist and enforcing them in this context.
Abejo proposed that, “Government should incentivize private initiatives to engage the education sector such as the Digital Thumbprint Program of digital solutions company Globe in partnership with the Department of Education that has integrated into the curriculum the training of young students to be knowledgeable in cybersecurity and responsible digital citizenship.”
“More public private engagements in digitally powered interventions can give free online access to workshop modules to arm people with the knowledge and attitude to responsibly and safely navigate the internet,” Abejo added.
A common concern
According to Abejo, empowering Filipinos to be aware of and fight online risks is a collective effort that must be undertaken by the government, the private sector, civil society, and the education sector.
“Specifically, telcos and ISPs should partner with the government to engage in an aggressive and sustained education program to raise awareness of online dangers,” Abejo said.
"Technology is good because it allows societies to be productive and innovative, and reach their potential,” he said. “We must manage the inherent risks and learn how to protect ourselves against those who think they can use the internet to advance their criminal interests.”
“As we are now in a highly digital world, we must choose leaders who can be digital transformation champions to address digital readiness gaps that can delay our recovery from the pandemic crisis,” Abejo said.