Photo of several masked Filipino anti-surveillance protesters with signage about the "Junk Sim Reg[istration] Law."

Photos courtesy of the Junk Sim Registration Network.

Fighting Biometrics with Junk SIM Registration Network

Maded Batara III is a spokesperson for Junk SIM Registration Network, an alliance of farmers, student organizers, factory workers, and technologists opposing the Philippines’ SIM Card Registration Act. The group formed in December 2022 in response to a law requiring Filipinos to present a valid government-issued ID card in order to activate or retain a SIM card. 

The law, purportedly an effort to reduce crimes and disinformation by text, serves to intensify government surveillance against critics, among many other concerns the Network has highlighted. The group aims to make information security and the right to privacy and security more popular and widely legible among the general public, especially in rural communities where the law has created significant burdens. Maded is also a developer, campaigner, and people’s advocate at the Computer Professionals’ Union.

Note, this interview occurred prior to the deadline to register SIMs on April 26, 2023. Signaling the significant challenges and resistance to the law, the deadline was extended by ninety days, due to the significant number of Filipinos who had not registered. Some telecommunications companies reported that as many as 54 percent of their subscribers had failed to register.

Khadijah Abdurahman: How did the Junk SIM Registration Network originally get started in the Philippines?

Maded Batara III: I am a member of the Computer Professionals’ Union, which is an organization of communications professionals in the Philippines that advocate for the use of technology for the people. I am also one of the conveners of, and the spokesperson for, the Junk SIM Registration Network. We formed in December, in the midst of the passing of the SIM law. Various forms of the legislation had been forwarded in the Philippine Congress since 2004, but the final bill wasn’t implemented until December 27, 2022. A similar bill was initially passed by the Eighteenth Congress but was vetoed in April by then President Rodrigo Duterte due to its very controversial provision on social media registrations.

The new president, Bongbong Marcos, prioritized the bill to allegedly conquer text scams, which were super prevalent during the pandemic; people would text you fake job offers or casino advertisements. This is how the SIM registration law moved forward in Congress.

In December, we decided to unite all of the organizations—and individuals—that were against the law. These reasons included threats to our privacy, how it threatens to put millions of Filipinos at jeopardy because they don’t have the tools required—IDs and internet access—to actually register the SIM. We launched last December in order to oppose the bill; to challenge it legally and to hopefully bring every Filipino together to resist the registration, which impacts so much more than what the bill seems to prevent at first glance.

Khadijah: Can you talk more about former President Rodrigo Duterte’s rejection of the SIM registration law, since he wasn’t exactly the biggest advocate for human rights?

Maded: Duterte’s allies had a supermajority in Congress, and the bill easily passed. But it sat on his desk for months because there was a lot of uproar from lots of human and consumer rights groups, privacy advocates, and people outside the traditional activist circles who want to keep their identity anonymous, like gamers and K-pop fans. Many of those circles got really riled up about the provision compelling people to register their social media accounts because then the government could access that register at any time as long as they had a subpoena. There were online petitions that garnered thousands, if not tens of thousands, of signatures. That really pushed Duterte to veto the law during his last month of the presidency. It definitely was a victory for the people who resisted the law. Unfortunately, the new administration just removed that provision, and it’s led through Congress more easily. I think it was easy because it was Marcos’s first law passed. This time we are trying to conduct a bit of a more offensive campaign to resist the administration. 

Khadijah: The window for SIM registration closes on April 26, but so many people have not actually been registered.

Maded: Two-thirds haven’t registered.

Khadijah: Whether it’s an organized or passive form of resistance, this is such a significant portion of people not registered. 

Maded: We have many people in the Philippines, especially in far-flung areas, where a SIM is their only way to communicate with other people. Maybe they live in the mountains, two or three hours away from the nearest hospital, internet, or government agency, and they don’t even have an ID—which the government is actually required to give. They don’t have access to a smartphone to access the portal online. The actual registration is a web page that compels you to give your name, your personal details, a picture of your ID, and also a selfie or picture of yourself. We have gotten reports from some farmers that they are scared their SIM might be deactivated, because it’s their sole means of communicating with people. So there’s a wide issue of inaccessibility. If you ask a farmer or worker why they resist the SIM registration, they would tell you the issue is not even privacy, not security, but it’s inaccessibility. Even the telecommunications companies are requesting an extension because they know their bottom line will be impacted.

Khadijah: Why do you think the government is implementing this policy, given such a significant rural population? They have access to administrative data—which shows the percentage of people without IDs, for example—so it’s not as if they don’t know. 

Maded: Actually, a funny story. When we raised the concern, the National Telecommunications Commission offered a public consultation on how they were actually going to implement this law. We sat and said, point blank, “Millions of Filipinos don’t have ID, so how are you going to deal with that when you require an ID to sign up?” And they said, “It’s easy to get an ID. Just go to your local government agency and just file for an ID.”

The government is either a bit out of touch, or they are denying the true state. They’re trying to justify implementing this law while disregarding all of the possible mishaps that go with it. They say that it’s for curbing scams, but global studies have shown that SIM registration doesn’t reduce the incidence of scams and it will just allow for a black market of SIMs to continue to proliferate. There is a secretly state-funded news agency, kind of like the Fox News of the Philippines. It’s funded by this religious entity close to the Dutertes. Essentially they said they were going to use other legal avenues to justify surveilling activists; basically organizers who they proclaim as terrorists. ‘Communist terrorists’ is the term. So there’s definitely a push by the government, in no small part aligned with the global trend toward surveillance, surveillance capitalism. As states collect more and more data from citizens, using vast amounts of data, governments can surveil activists and organizers and others that are opposed to their propaganda. There’s a law that was passed essentially allowing the government to unilaterally tag any organization, any individual, as terrorists. Essentially it justifies surveilling them; it justifies arresting people without a warrant—without any checks by the courts or the legislative branch. In conjunction with this law, you see the push by the state to silence the people, further surveil activists, arrest, and harass them—and in some cases actually kill them.

Khadijah: Could you help us situate the SIM registration law in relationship to the broader history of the Philippines and popular resistance? Similar laws have been passed in other regions—for example, with Safaricom in Kenya—but demands for biometric information haven’t provoked comparable levels of pushback to the SIM registration law. But people aren’t up in arms and tend to feel like these things are inevitable. So can you give us the broader historical context in the Philippines, as well as clarify where the concepts of surveillance state sits in relation to it?

Maded: It really does drill down to an active, organized movement that goes against state fascism, the effects of global imperialism—especially US imperialism—and the effects of despotic landlords and capitalists in the countryside and in the cities. The Philippines has had this historic antifascist movement since Spanish colonial rule up until this day. When Marcos declared martial law in the 1970s, this wide mass of activists organized themselves on the ground—especially in the countryside—to revolt against Marcos. There’s a wide mass of activists and organizers who worked with communities and campaigned for their democratic rights. In return, a state force—funded in no small part by the US government, as well as by big corporations in cahoots with the government—worked to silence people’s resistance and to allow destructive projects such as mines, dams, or the displacement of millions of Filipinos for “development.”

There’s always been active pushback from the people against tyrannical governments, their local counterparts, and the companies that are responsible for the destruction of many communities under fascism. They’ve been constantly trying to increase surveillance against activists, tagging them as terrorists, linking them to the armed communist movement in the countryside. Unfortunately, our peasant and worker-leaders aren’t able to join this conversation, but I can share some of their stories. For example, worker unions in the provinces near export processing zones, what they call the factories of multinational companies—some owned by large corporations like Coca-Cola or Nestlé—that try to silence organizing within their factories by texting local union leaders, connecting them to armed communists, censoring them, visiting them at their house, and threatening them. This in response to organizing efforts within these communities against low wages and incredibly horrible working conditions.

So there’s resistance activities against destructive projects and incredibly harsh working conditions, even as people are just asking for democratic rights, just asking for a better society for all, just asking for better living and working conditions. What they’re met with is harassment, especially now through text and through social media. We’re working on a case right now to declare the SIM registration law unconstitutional. We’re going through the case files, and we have seen texts to local leaders calling them communists, threatening to kill them, threatening to kill their families, threatening to just silence them so that nothing bad will happen to their families; and in social media, where trolls and anonymous accounts harass Facebook pages of progressive groups and harass people through Facebook Messenger threatening to kill them. So the state is pushing back against people fighting for basic democratic rights. That battle is being forged online. The state passed massive funding in order to harass activists, with the support of the US government and the Israeli government—to fund the use of drones and other more advanced military equipment to be used in the countryside and cities. The people are fighting back against tyrannical laws that threaten people’s right to privacy and harm their freedom of expression.

Khadijah: Thinking about East Africa, everything that you describe about labeling people in the countryside as part of an armed movement or harassing them as terrorists sounds very familiar. What sounds a little bit different is, it feels like you have a civic society where people can actually protest. Can you give us a sense of the parameters for acceptable dissent within the Philippines? What kind of risks do you feel like the registration network is able to take? Where are the boundaries for that? How is that seen in the countryside versus the cities?

Maded: Luckily, there’s such a wide network of human rights defenders and lawyers on our side. The Philippines movement community is so strong and so wide. Despite all of these attacks, we’re still able to collectively assert our right to protest—but, of course, not without consequence. Sometimes it’s really dangerous for people to protest. Just last week, two youth activists were arrested for protesting in front of the US embassy just for exercising their legal right to protest. That shows how the local government and state forces want to suck up, essentially, to the United States [laughs] just to protect their local interests. But luckily, we still do have those spaces; we still are able to assert our legal right to protest. A lot of that is just having people who are united in their stated goal and know what their rights are to protect their privacy and security. For another organization I work with, Computer Professionals’ Union, one of the major campaigns is the responsible use of technology and how to use technology in order to advance movements within communities. We’ve always been huge advocates of information security and privacy and using secure tools to communicate. With the state’s massive investment in information security and surveillance to actually surveil against the opposition, people have worked to keep themselves private, outside the eye of local government. Building people’s movements really speaks volumes and tells the government how the people will fight back.

Photo is of protestors against the SIM registration law. Protestors' signs say in English:

Khadijah: The way privacy is currently conceived within critical tech discourse is so narrow that it rarely resonates with people. What language are the farmers or the fishermen using? What do you feel like your experience, personally and also as a collective, have to contribute to the broader conversation that’s happening around privacy and surveillance?

Maded: I think it’s helpful for us to reframe privacy, to see it not just as an individual thing but as a collective concern. Communicating “privacy” was actually a stumbling block we’ve hit in communicating what this law is. Privacy seems like such an abstract concept. When you’re in a suburb in America or something, no one is allowed to intrude in your home or go to your house without permission. But here, if you go to a poorer community in Manila for example, the concept of personal space is so blurry. The houses are right beside each other, and there are no lawns. Every street is a collective. Every street is a place where people chat, where kids play, and the houses are so close together that people are more open to going into other people’s houses. In farming communities, people are so far apart that people don’t yet realize Facebook is a form of surveillance inside your house; that it intrudes on your privacy and allows all of your data to get misused. There is this rush of technology after being slow to come in, and people are still trying to comprehend. So the concept of privacy—what are the things you need to keep private, and why do you need to keep them private in the first place?—that’s something we are still trying to workshop. What we’re trying to do now is to localize the conversation of privacy, by introducing it in the context of what they already understand. A factory worker’s interest in privacy may be to ensure the right to organize within their factory. A farmer’s conception of privacy might be that they just don’t want anyone to go into their house or steal their crops. 

Another thing we’re doing is simply teaching people how to use tools. A lot of people in the Philippines use Messenger and Facebook because of the Facebook Free Basics initiative. In 2010, Facebook pioneered “zero-rating” its services, including chat, in the global South, which led to the majority of the Philippines’ population having access to a Facebook account and using Facebook Messenger as their primary means of communication. It’s not just a question of privacy now; it’s also a question of economics: I can’t afford the mobile data, so why would I use something else when it requires me to pay? So privacy is so closely interlinked with much of the other things we are struggling for. If you want to make people more aware of privacy, you have to meet them where they’re at. Privacy is only one aspect of the democratic rights they are fighting for. How do we create secure technology for mass organizing when we’re competing with companies who can just make their services “free” by forcing millions of people onto their platform, where their data is harvested? That is what we are up against as computer scientists, as technologists and organizers. How do we create technology that can counter large companies whose technology is ingrained in people’s lives?

Maded Batara III is a developer and advocate who is the spokesperson of the Junk SIM Registration Network, as well as the deputy public information officer of the Computer Professionals’ Union (

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 19, "supa dupa skies (move slow and heal things)." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.