MANILA, Philippines — Eliseo Rio Jr. said he was “eased out” as undersecretary of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) last month after questioning the selection of StaySafe.ph as the country’s official contact tracing app.
Rio broke his silence in a social media post on Sunday. He cited weaknesses in StaySafe.ph’s privacy protocols and its ability to do contact tracing—an essential function in isolating cases to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
StaySafe.Ph was developed by Multisys Technologies Corp., a company partly owned by telco giant PLDT Inc.
Multisys CEO David Almirol Jr. told the Inquirer on Sunday the app is fully functional but he acknowledged the need to resolve integration issues between different operating systems for mobile devices.
Malacañang spokesman Harry Roque said last April 22 that StaySafe.ph will be the country’s “official social distancing, health condition reporting, and contact tracing system.”
This means it will augment inefficient and time-consuming manual contact tracing as strict lockdown measures are eased and millions of Filipinos return to work. The Department of Transportation, for example, said it will be relying on StaySafe.ph to aid tracing in mass public transport.
But in his post, Rio questioned the decision to choose just one digital contact tracing solution when there should be multiple providers to solve complex issues all over the Philippines.
He said StaySafe.PH only works on 3G capable phones and newer models, leaving out over 20 million Filipinos using 2G devices. Rio added that mobile signal was spotty in parts of Metro Manila and worse in other areas.
StaySafe.PH currently has a million users or roughly 1 percent of more than 100 million Filipinos.
“That is why no single app or method can prove effective in the Philippine setting,” Rio said. “We actually need more players in the common interest of providing the contact tracing to be inclusive rather than exclusive.”
Rio said that the national government’s interagency task force (IATF) against COVID-9, however, is “no longer interested in considering other contact tracing apps.”
In his post, Rio said he convinced Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., the chief implementer of the National Action Plan Against COVID-19, to consider more options.
Last May 13, Galvez wrote a letter to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III proposing the creation of an Information Systems Task Group and to designate Rio as chair, the Inquirer earlier reported.
That plan was not approved and Rio’s resignation, offered to President Duterte on Jan. 31 this year, was suddenly accepted and announced on May 22.
“Not only was this proposal of Secretary Galvez disregarded by IATF, I was eased out from the government at this crucial time with the President accepting my four-month-old resignation,” Rio said.
Rio offered to resign this year over the lack of transparency on the disbursement of about P300 million in intelligence funds under the office of DICT secretary Gregorio Honasan II.
He said intelligence funds are typically used for covert operations and are outside the mandate of the DICT. Rio and Honasan appeared to reconcile after issuing a joint statement days later. Rio’s resignation letter, however, was not withdrawn.
According to Sec. Galvez’s letter, the Information Systems Task Group will evaluate digital solutions, including private sector proposals for contact tracing apps, to aid the government in its fight against COVID-19.
An important component of the project was to create a data warehouse for the information collected from the various digital apps.
This will provide the government with real-time information and analytics and allow it to respond to the crisis better and faster.
That plan, which would have been under a DICT-controlled database at no extra cost to the government, was shelved after Rio left the department, according to Carlo Subido, president of the InfoComm Technology Association of the Philippines.
Subido, who was working with Rio on the data warehouse, told the Inquirer the project could be a powerful tool for the government.
“It’s a data lake that uses analytics and a number of visual tools. Once you run the info, you can put it in a dashboard with information that’s easy to manage and interpret,” Subido said.
Almirol said in the interview that he also backed the creation a data warehouse to be controlled by the DICT.
But he disagreed with the points Rio raised over the capabilities of StaySafe.Ph. He said the app uses both GPS and Blutetooth for contact tracing and he challenged critics to a live demonstration of the app’s functions.
“For me, the selection shouldn’t be politicized. We’re really just trying to help the government,” said Almirol, adding that he had invested significantly for what he considered a donation to the government.
He noted, however, that while the app recognizes bluetooth devices using similar operating systems such as Google’s Android, they have yet to integrate this with other platforms such as Apple’s iOS.
Almirol hoped to complete the necessary integration soon after getting the final approval from the government.
Because the proposal for a DICT-controlled data warehouse was shelved, Almirol said user information of StaySafe.ph remained in their hands. He said this will continue until the government decides on which agency will handle the StaySafe.ph platform.
Moreover, Almirol brushed aside allegations that StaySafe.ph was favored early on, adding that they presented their proposal alongside other IT developers.
He said they will strictly follow privacy regulations amid worries StaySafe.ph could be used as a spying tool on Filipinos.
The April 17 memorandum of agreement between Multisys and the COVID-19 national task force, which was seen by the Inquirer, showed Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., and Sec. Galvez as the sole government signatories.
For now, it remains clear the government is ignoring the expertise of other developers that are offering to help.
Meric Mara, among the project owners of contact tracing app 1Country100, said they also offered assistance to the government last March.
“Our understanding is that the objective was to collaborate among developers. But suddenly, the IATF approved StaySafe and we don’t know what criteria was used,” Mara told the Inquirer.
He said they still pushed through with the development of 1Country100, which taps data from GPS and manual contact tracing sources. They intend to launch the system in partnership with the Quezon City local government.
Mara said a single app cannot solve the contact tracing problems of the Philippines.
“There are over 7,000 islands and limitations to technology,” Mara said. “We cannot afford to have a selective mindset because we’re talking about saving lives.”
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