Friday, July 19, 2019

Amante: Bugs against thugs

(Illustration by John Gilbert Manantan)

UNKNOWN to most of us, the cliché “small but terrible” has become real.

In the 2016 movie “Miss Sloane,” the lobbyist that Jessica Chastain plays gets the evidence to pin down a senator by using a surveillance camera mounted on a cockroach. It films the congressman and another lobbyist inside a car, while the latter pressures the lawmaker into voting against a bill that would tighten background checks on prospective gun buyers. Both the sound and images it captures are clear. It’s the bug that brings down a small part of a corrupt and underhanded system.

That is no longer just the stuff of science fiction.

For more than 20 years, researchers like Kristofer Pister have been working on tiny sensors that can gather real-time data during combat, such as how fast and where military vehicles are going. “Smart dust” is the term Pister coined in 1997 to describe these devices, technically called wireless microelectromechanical sensors.

The Quartz Obsession newsletter, which featured “smart dust” in its Dec. 14 issue, points out that these solar-powered microsensors may go mainstream within the next 10 years. They may be used, among others, to search for things, to conduct surveillance or to transmit information about how cells in the human body are responding to chemotherapy or other medication. A device made by Michigan Engineering packs several functions—computing, sensing, and imaging—in a sensor much smaller than a fruit fly, yet with enough power to transmit all that information wirelessly.

The privacy violations that such devices may be used to commit are so sweeping that there’s bound to be anxiety about how these sensors are deployed. But when I think about a recent Sandiganbayan decision, I wonder if something along the lines of the “Miss Sloane” maneuver might have made a difference.

Last Dec. 7, the Sandiganbayan ruled that there was insufficient evidence that Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. was guilty of plunder by pocketing some P224.51 million in taxpayers’ funds. These represented commissions or kickbacks from foundations and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) that had received part of his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) over a period of six years.

These NGOs turned out to be fictitious. None of their projects existed.

The anti-graft court did find guilty the senator’s legislative officer Atty. Richard Cambe and businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles. It also ordered the accused to return P124.5 million to the Government.

According to witnesses, Napoles had formed at least 21 NGOs and foundations, using the names and tax identification numbers of her drivers, maids, guards, and other employees. These NGOs then received shares from the PDAF of Revilla and four other lawmakers, for which these legislators’ representatives received rebates and commissions.

The court found enough evidence that Napoles and Cambe had prepared the project lists and endorsement letters, obtained the funds from the implementing agencies, and liquidated them, using fake receipts, delivery receipts, and sales invoices. Their trail of falsified papers included attendance certificates and lists of beneficiaries with forged signatures.

From 2006 to 2012, the Napoles foundations received funds from Revilla’s PDAF at least 20 times.

But the court, while impressed by the “credulous spontaneity” of the three principal witnesses, said there was insufficient proof that Cambe had acted on the senator’s orders.

Revilla told the court that he never authorized Cambe to handle his PDAF nor received any money from him from those funds. He claimed that his signatures on the documents had been forged.

How differently things might have turned out if the Office of the Ombudsman or Commission on Audit had had any “smart dust” microsensors to deploy against nefarious public officials.


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