Inside the Video Surveillance Program IBM Built for Philippine Strongman Rodrigo Duterte
Jaypee Larosa was standing in front of an internet cafe in Davao City, a metropolitan hub on the Philippine island of Mindanao, when three men in dark jackets pulled up on a motorcycle and opened fire. That summer evening, Larosa, 20, was killed. After the shooting, according to witnesses, one of the men reportedly removed Larosa’s baseball cap and said, “Son of a bitch. This is not the one.” Then they drove off.
Larosa’s murder, on July 17, 2008, was one of hundreds of extrajudicial killings carried out in Davao City, now a city of 1.6 million, while Rodrigo Duterte, now president of the Philippines, was mayor there. Years before launching his notorious, bloody “drug war” across the country, Duterte presided over similar tactics at the local level. During his tenure as mayor, according to a 2009 investigation by Human Rights Watch, death squads assassinated street children, drug dealers, and petty criminals; in some cases, researchers found evidence of the complicity or direct involvement of government officials and police.
Duterte has consistently denied any connection to this campaign of killings, but at times, his support for the violence was barely concealed. As mayor, Duterte would publicly announce the names or locations of “criminals,” and some of them would later be killed, according to human rights groups and local newspapers. Although it stopped short of accusing Duterte himself of misconduct or direct involvement, the Philippines’ Office of the Ombudsman partially acknowledged in 2012 the police’s role in tolerating the killings, finding that 21 Davao City police officials and officers were “remiss in their duty” for failing to solve them.
But this potential complicity in human rights violations did not stop IBM from agreeing to provide surveillance technology to law enforcement in Davao City. On June 27, 2012, three years after the devastating Human Rights Watch report, IBM issued a short news release announcing an agreement with Davao to upgrade its police command center in order to “further enhance public safety operations in the city.” IBM’s installation, known as the Intelligent Operations Center, promised to enhance authorities’ ability to monitor residents in real time with cutting-edge video analytics, multichannel communications technology, and GPS-enabled patrol vehicles. Less than two months later, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights published a resolution condemning Davao authorities for fostering a “climate of impunity” with regard to the killings, recommending that the National Bureau of Investigation undertake an impartial investigation into potential obstruction of justice by local police officials. (Duterte has recently condemned the commission, questioning its motives and suggesting that it should be abolished.)
The 2012 IBM deal was signed by Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, who was Davao City’s nominal mayor at the time, while her term-limited father served as vice mayor; under Sara Duterte, the killings continued. The system, according to local news reports, was deployed in June 2013, just as Rodrigo Duterte was about to return to the mayoral seat he had already held for nearly two decades. The police command center, Sara Duterte told the Durian Post, “is now infused with IBM’s IOC technology,” allowing police to “shift from responding to critical events to anticipating and preventing them.”
While The Intercept and Type Investigations were unable to locate any reference to Davao’s death squads in IBM’s public corporate documents about the program, a 2014 company overview of the installation made clear that IBM knew “illegal drugs,” predictive policing, and crime suppression were among Davao City security forces’ “priority areas.” From 2013 through late 2016, when one Davao security official estimated the IBM program stopped being in active use, Filipino human rights activists who worked closely with the Commission on Human Rights claimed to have documented at least 213 extrajudicial killings carried out by Davao death squads.
Davao City officials did not respond to queries related to IBM’s video surveillance system or its potential role in extrajudicial killing operations during its run. But three police and city security officials interviewed in Davao City last year said the program had strengthened police video monitoring capabilities, which they said had proved useful in Davao’s controversial war on so-called drug syndicates. That war, human rights reports and former death squad participants have shown, often targeted low-level drug users and peddlers, rather than major traffickers.
Amado Picardal, a former spokesperson of the Coalition Against Summary Executions, a Davao-based human rights group, called IBM’s work “unethical,” given that some of the killings had been linked to Duterte’s police in the years before its deal with Davao City.
IBM declined to respond to queries about its human rights record in Davao City. IBM spokesperson Edward Barbini briefly noted that the company “no longer supplies technology to the Intelligent Operations Center in Davao, and has not done so since 2012,” though he declined to clarify whether IBM serviced the technology after that point, and IBM’s public filings mention the program as ongoing after that date. “The Philippines city of Davao’s 1.5 million citizens will be the first in Asia to benefit from an Intelligent Operations Center,” an April 3, 2013, IBM disclosure reads. “A new early warning system will monitor key risk indicators so agencies can take quick action before situations escalate.”
In the years since the IBM program was phased out, Philippine police interest in cutting-edge surveillance infrastructure has hardly waned. National authorities are now looking to deploy real-time facial recognition across the country, in a project called “Safe Philippines,” and have considered technology from a variety of international vendors, including the Chinese telecom Huawei.
In December, a local newspaper reported that the Philippines had secured a 20 billion-peso loan for the installation of thousands of surveillance cameras across Davao City and metro Manila in collaboration with a Chinese firm, an installation that would reportedly include a national command center and feature facial and vehicle recognition software. In a January interview on Filipino television, Epimaco Densing III, undersecretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, said that a goal of the project is to detect the faces of terrorist suspects and prevent crimes before they take place.
Filipino activists worry that such capabilities could facilitate human rights violations. Over the last three years, parts of the country have been under temporary declarations of martial law, and Duterte’s “war on drugs” has left at least 5,000 and possibly as many as 27,000 dead (police and human rights groups’ estimates vary widely). Those killed have included anti-Duterte activists, elected officials, and outspoken Catholic priests. Currently, Duterte is campaigning to modify the constitution, a move that could afford powers to the executive to further the suppression of political opponents.
Surveillance Capabilities in Davao
In June 2012, Mayor Sara Duterte announced a 128 million-peso deal, worth just over $3 million at the time, with IBM to improve its real-time monitoring capabilities. The announcement promised to “scale up” Davao’s Public Safety and Security Command Center, or PSSCC, with improved communications and surveillance technology.
Sayaji Shinde, a former IBM sales leader who says he was part of the team that secured the command center deal, recalls that his team was eager to partner with the Duterte administration. “If you look at the Dutertes as such, they focus a lot on public-sector security,” said Shinde. “And I think that is one of the drivers, for even us, to go and spend our time and advise them because we saw that they are really keen to ensure that the city become more safer.”
To seal the deal, Shinde said, IBM pointed to the international recognition that such a project would bring Davao. “That is precisely what we sold them: ‘You know if you do this, work with us, and it becomes first of its kind, then this will be highlighted globally.’”
In the initial phase of the project, IBM mapped Davao’s police cameras onto a geographic information system, allowing operators to quickly access camera feeds near locations of interest, Shinde said.
According to Shinde, the rollout also featured a multichannel communications system, allowing police, traffic, and defense personnel to communicate with one another. It also included video analytics technology that automatically tagged objects captured on camera, like cars and people, by their physical attributes. The tags included the objects’ size, speed, color, trajectory, and direction, according to a November 2014 IBM presentation to the Asian Development Bank, allowing command center operators to comb through camera footage in search of suspects by their descriptions. (IBM had refined these kinds of surveillance capabilities using secret access to New York Police Department camera footage, as The Intercept and Type Investigations reported in September.)
“That was probably the first-ever video analytics surveillance that was done in Asia,” said Shinde, noting that the system could be used in the wake of robberies or murders to track a suspect’s car before and after a crime. The software was “very user-friendly,” he noted, so Davao security officials at the command center could easily have become competent in the program’s object search capabilities.
The 2014 IBM presentation on its Davao project also mentions a tool known as “Face Capture,” which boxes out images of faces in real time and stores them for retroactive analysis. In a recent interview, Emmanuel Jaldon, head of Davao City’s 911 Center, claimed that this functionality was planned but never formally deployed. Barbini also claims that IBM “never supplied facial recognition capability for the center.” And Shinde, who left IBM in 2014, said that Face Capture was not integrated while he was there during the first phase of the Davao project. But a February 2015 promotional video for the PSSCC, highlighting the command center’s monitoring capabilities and ability to “suppress all forms of criminalities,” features a clip of IBM’s Face Capture interface in action, gathering facial images from pedestrians on the streets of Davao City. Footage of what appears to be the IBM Davao City dashboard, pictured above, shows the software boxing out and collecting facial images as people walked past street cameras.
IBM’s Technology in Duterte’s War on Crime
When asked what assurances he was given about how the surveillance program would be used, Shinde defended IBM’s sale, saying that it was intended for legitimate public safety activities, such as responding to fires. “That particular implementation was not meant to track people,” he said. “It was meant to track the incidents and faster responses to those incidences.”
But in interviews in the command center, the nearby 911 center, and other locations in Davao City, local law enforcement officials familiar with the IBM program told The Intercept and Type Investigations that the technology had assisted them in carrying out Duterte’s controversial anti-crime agenda.
Manuel Gaerlan, a former regional Philippines National Police chief superintendent, said the command center, which IBM substantially upgraded, functions as a force multiplier in counter-drug operations. “It records events so it’s easier to identify the perpetrators, then you can go after the member of the syndicates,” he said. “If you can see more areas, you can send patrol to respond. It’s like putting more men on the ground. And you can put more cameras in drug areas.”
Jaldon, the 911 chief, pointed to IBM’s object tagging and search feature as the most useful tool the program gave law enforcement in counter-drug operations, especially when it came to “backtracking,” or investigating incidents after the fact. “After an event, the system helps find them quickly, give you awareness,” he said. “It helps in investigations to slice and dice by time, color, type of physical feature.” Most significantly, he said the program’s real-time alerts could also increase authorities’ “awareness of suspects’ presence.”
Antonio Boquiren, a training and research officer at the Davao command center, said the video capabilities helped police crack down on low-level quality of life violations.
“Whether it’s criminality, smoking, or jaywalking, any violation of ordinance is a crime and a police is sent,” he said, laughing. “People who smoke complain, ‘How did you catch us before we even lit?’ The police officer will point to the CCTV.”
The targeting of petty criminals, gang members, and street children by Davao death squads figures prominently in the 2009 Human Rights Watch report. And a 2015 promotional video featuring IBM’s technology shows authorities aggressively going after low-level crimes. One clip highlights a young man, caught on CCTV, stealing a bag from a truck. Later, the narrator notes that the technology gives police faster response times and cuts to footage of police officers chasing after a group of people on the street. One then raises his baton as if to hit one of them.
A former Philippine Army security consultant with close ties to Philippine intelligence, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, claimed that IBM’s program assisted police not only in monitoring criminal activities, but also in gathering intelligence on the activities of the political opposition in Davao. Based on his dealings with Davao City law enforcement officials, he said he couldn’t rule out that the data feed was implicated in extrajudicial killings.
Even if IBM’s program was solely used to assist in legitimate police responses to crime and fires, as Shinde said it was designed to do, surveillance researchers point out that it could well have enabled extrajudicial killings, simply by helping police capture or monitor everyday criminal suspects. The government has long denied the existence of police death squads, but in the Dutertes’ Davao, victims of extrajudicial killing were sometimes targeted immediately after being released from police custody, and police frequently killed suspects during planned raids.
In October 2015, for example, Duterte warned a group of drug dealers on a street called Dewey Boulevard that they had 48 hours to leave the city or be killed. “If you are into drugs, I’m warning you,” he announced, according to local press reports. “I’m giving you 48 hours, 48 hours. If I see you there, I’ll have you killed.” Police reportedly monitored the area and relayed that some known dealers had left. But a day after the warning, police fatally shot Armanuel Atienza, a 38-year-old community leader, claiming that he had resisted arrest during a buy-and-bust operation and that they found a handgun and drugs on his person. Such claims are suspect. According to 2016 Senate testimony by Edgar Matobato, who allegedly served as a death squad member from 1988 to 2013, Davao police regularly planted guns and drugs on suspects after killing them. (Duterte has asserted that he does not know Matobato and has implied that he may have committed perjury in this testimony. The Duterte administration’s communications office did not respond to detailed queries related to the IBM program, or its potential role in human rights violations.)
IBM’s object-tagging capability, for example, could have been used to locate a suspect by their physical attributes, someone who may then have become a target of extrajudicial violence, explains Kade Crockford, a technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, whose research focuses on police surveillance. “Maybe the system identifies three to four people, then law enforcement are sent to find those people,” Crockford said. “Maybe that person isn’t executed on the spot by law enforcement, but police question him about him and his associates; now he and some of the people he named make their way on to a list which ends up in the hands of a death squad.”
Social media posts from a PSSCC department head, archived on a local blog, suggest that the center, using IBM’s technology, was effective at nabbing suspected criminals.
In August 2014, that official claimed that police monitored and caught a group of street kids stealing from a cab driver “through the coordination” of the PSSCC and city police. That December, he claimed that the Intelligent Operations Center was a factor in the police surveillance and capture of a man cruising around Davao City with a gun.
IBM’s “Face Capture” feature, if deployed, also could have helped authorities locate wanted people in near real time — including residents on watchlists, according to Crockford. “Imagine a scenario in which someone in the police force, who has access to this system and works with the local death squad, producing lists of people to be killed,” she said. “This technology could help the police leader to ID a person on the kill list in real time and then have them deploy the death squads to go get them.”
The Davao command center, according to a local news report, did have facial recognition capabilities in place by 2014, though the technology was not identified with IBM. And according to the 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Davao’s death squads were known to rely in part on photos of targets on their watchlists.
In August 2016, Artemio Jimenez Jr., a neighborhood political leader and vocal supporter of Duterte’s war on drugs, turned himself in to Davao City police after apparently discovering that he was on a government watchlist of suspected drug users, offering to be tested for drugs in order to clear his name. Police tested his urine for methamphetamine and cannabinol, according to The Inquirer, tests that came up negative. Nonetheless, the next month, “unidentified gunmen” drove up to his car and fired repeatedly, killing him and wounding his driver and bodyguard. Police claimed that they were investigating, but never announced a suspect or motive in the shooting. Nor did they explain how the assassins knew Jimenez’s location.
IBM’s Public Human Rights Commitments
IBM publicly claims to be “committed to high standards of corporate responsibility” and to consider the “social concerns” of the communities in which it operates. IBM’s Human Rights Statement of Principles cites a number of international standards, including the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which calls on corporations to perform due diligence on the “human rights context prior to a proposed business activity,” identify “who may be affected,” and project “how the proposed activity and associated business relationships could have adverse human rights impacts on those identified.” These standards also call on companies to proactively track potential human rights abuses related to their business activities and require “active engagement” in the remediation of any identified abuses.
IBM’s Securities and Exchange Commission documents and annual reports between 2012 and 2016 contain a few scattered mentions of its project in Davao, but no discussion of any potential human rights concerns or any preventative measures taken by the company. None of IBM’s corporate social responsibility reports have ever mentioned its collaboration with Duterte in Davao.
Despite reporting by Human Rights Watch and local papers, Shinde claimed that the human rights allegations against the Duterte regime were “not in the news at all during those days.” There was “nothing said like that about him at that time,” he continued, pointing out that IBM contracted with Sara Duterte, not her father, who, he said, “didn’t have such a kind of record.”
Yet when IBM agreed to work with the Duterte family’s administration in 2012, his regime’s support of extrajudicial killings in Davao City had been well-established; as early as 2009, he had described criminals as “a legitimate target for assassination.” In 2012, the year IBM signed the deal with Sara Duterte, local human rights activists claimed to have documented 61 death squad killings.
According to IBM documents and law enforcement officials, the Philippine National Police also received information from the surveillance command center. Before the IBM deal was signed, the Philippine National Police had also been criticized for failing to investigate death squad killings, and since Duterte became president, it has played a role in the deadly national “war on drugs.”
“If they had the technology then, I have no doubt that they used it and continue to use it to locate the targets for elimination,” said Picardal, formerly of the Coalition Against Summary Executions. “And not only drug users but human rights defenders, activists, and anyone they consider as enemies of the state.”
IBM had to have known about the Dutertes’ track record at the time, said a U.S. official who recalled being briefed by IBM about its Davao City project. “I can’t see how they wouldn’t have known about it. They have local people working for them,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on U.S. government matters.
Joshua Franco, head of technology and human rights at Amnesty International, noted that Rodrigo Duterte’s record as mayor was so well-documented that any company engaging with the Davao police at that time would have had a responsibility to investigate and avoid potential complicity in human rights violations before signing any agreements.
“There is documentation of the killings, by persons believed to be linked to the police, that went on in Davao City while Duterte was mayor,” he said. “Human rights organizations have documented that, during this period, as many as 1,000 people were killed, including street children, people who used and sold drugs, as well as petty criminals. Without implementing a rigorous human rights due diligence process, companies supplying the local police forces suspected of having been involved in the killings with policing equipment and technology may have enabled or facilitated the commission of human rights violations.”
Asked about the human rights implications of the surveillance program, Philippine law enforcement officials familiar with the IBM system made light of such concerns.
“If police do some human rights abuses, who cares?” said one official, claiming that such tactics had resulted in significant crime reductions.
Gaerlan, the regional police superintendent, joked about the extrajudicial killing of alleged drug lord Melvin Odicta Sr., who was shot, according to police, by two “unidentified assailants.” Gaerlan’s agency, the Philippine National Police, officially speculated that he may have been killed by other drug dealers. But the commander waved off that version of events. “He was shot right off the ship,” he said, laughing. “He was trying to evade authorities by not coming here on a plane. He never holds drugs. You can’t catch him, but he was killed. Not by anyone in uniform! It was just some vigilantes, but they weren’t in uniform!”
Legal protections for the accused, such as due process, may be good in theory, argued Boquiren, the PSSCC officer, but they aren’t practical because of a court system he characterized as inefficient and corrupt. “Due process is good on the point of lawyers, but if we are talking about the criminal justice system, it’s weak. Even clear-cut cases of murder take years, witnesses die, so something is wrong,” he said.
“If people don’t have discipline, they don’t obey,” he continued. “But if there is fear, they will obey.”
Duterte’s Mass Surveillance Plans
In November, Jaldon said that IBM’s surveillance program was no longer active in Davao. He said that authorities switched over to an in-house software system in 2016. Still, he and Boquiren said that the urban surveillance center model IBM helped build in Davao City has served as an inspiration for the Duterte administration. “Within the next few years, the president will have replicated our system everywhere,” Boquiren said last January. “Every time he goes somewhere, he keeps telling local leaders, go to Davao City and replicate the PSSCC.”
Duterte’s plan is to expand and unify public safety and emergency response centers at a regional and national level in the coming years, Jaldon said. “The hard part before was the budget costs, but that won’t be a problem anymore with the president prioritizing this.”
Jaldon and Boquiren said national authorities — including Duterte himself — are interested in expanding surveillance centers across the country and upgrading their video capabilities to include real-time facial recognition, which could compare the faces of suspects to facial images caught on CCTV.
In February 2018, a local news report cited anonymous sources indicating that Duterte was pursuing a partnership with Huawei, a Chinese telecom firm, to provide facial recognition technology, a development Boquiren confirmed at the time.
Then in December 2018, the Philippine legislature learned that a different Chinese firm, the state-owned China International Telecommunications and Construction Corp., had loaned the Philippines Department of the Interior and Local Government 20 billion pesos to install 12,000 surveillance cameras across Davao City and metro Manila. The “Safe Philippines” infrastructure, according to a report in the Philippine Star, will include a national command center and a backup data center, equipped with facial and vehicle recognition software. At a Senate hearing, Sen. Ralph Recto raised concerns about China’s involvement in the project, and officials from the national Department of Information and Communications Technology testified that they had not been consulted about the deal.
Several other Chinese firms had originally been proposed by the Chinese Embassy for the project, including Huawei. But, according to a January 2019 Senate resolution introduced by Recto, Huawei was slated to become only a major subcontractor as the “primary equipment supplier.”
According to Boquiren, Huawei promised that its facial recognition product could capture someone “even with an image of the side of their face” and “store up to a million faces.” In a November 2018 call, Boquiren reiterated that unspecified police authorities were looking at Huawei technology, but declined to discuss any additional details, citing a lack of technical expertise. Jaldon cautioned that while the Chinese firm had “a good system,” authorities were still in the process of assessing a variety of facial recognition vendors as part of the implementation of the “safe city project” across the country.
The Philippines’ potential collaboration with Chinese firms, which resulted from an agreement reached during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping last November, reflects Duterte’s ongoing pivot to China and away from the United States. Huawei, in particular, is alleged to have such close ties to the Chinese state that it has been banned from U.S. government contracts and from providing some security products to Australia for fear of backdoor intrusions by Chinese intelligence actors.
The former consultant to the Philippine Army said his understanding is that the Safe Philippines installation will be modeled after Chinese facial recognition infrastructure, uniting CCTV installations and intelligence databases from security agencies across the country into one unified system. “The project aims to establish new CCTV networks and cascade them with all existing CCTV installations,” he said. “Patterned after the Chinese police state, the system is intended to tap databases from a variety of agencies of the government and integrate them with the data streams from the CCTV networks.”
In a more recent interview, the former consultant said that, given the scrutiny Huawei has drawn, the Department of the Interior and Local Government may opt for another technology equipment supplier, a claim that Densing, the Department of the Interior official, echoed in the January television interview.
Maya Wang, senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, said the potential adoption of a Chinese-style surveillance infrastructure, facilitated by Chinese companies, is very concerning given the “context of Duterte’s increasing abuses, drug war, and large-scale extrajudicial violence.” But Wang cautioned that the costs and expertise required for such systems are not easily replicable. The Philippine government could potentially “replicate one or some of the systems, but not all of the overlapping, multitiered mass surveillance systems seen in China,” she said.
Anti-Duterte activists worry that this planned consolidation of surveillance capabilities could further enable Duterte-aligned forces to stamp out pockets of political resistance. An integrated national system of real-time facial recognition technology, according to Picardal, the former spokesperson for the Coalition Against Summary Executions, would ensure the fulfillment of what he called Duterte’s “plan to exercise full authoritarian/dictatorial rule and repress dissent.” Picardal, who is currently in an undisclosed location, said such a system would also threaten him personally, as he believes that Duterte’s deaths squads want him dead. Since Duterte came to power nationally, several other dissident priests in the Philippines have been murdered. (Duterte has denied condoning extrajudicial killings as president. A presidential spokesperson said last year that Picardal should seek court protection if he feels threatened.)
“I have transferred to a more secure location,” he said. “But with that technology, it would be more difficult for me to come out in the open and that will restrict my freedom of movement. That technology will be used not just to locate, arrest, and charge dissidents in court, but, worse, to inform the death squads of their whereabouts.” He warned that the technology will increase extrajudicial killings, “instill fear on those who oppose his rule,” and curtail citizens’ “right to free assembly and redress of grievances. This type of technology will weaken democracy and will advance authoritarian rule all over the country.”
Since taking power, the Duterte administration has attempted to shut down or mitigate critical news coverage, including, in January, the online news site Rappler, and numerous political activists have been among those assassinated. Meanwhile, the president’s notorious “drug war” has left thousands more dead. “It’s not just the killing of thousands,” the former army security consultant warned. “It results in a killing organization, the police, that is easy to expand. The drug war is a mirror to the larger future.”
Gaerlan, the recently retired national police commander, scoffed at such concerns. “The human rights activists, Rappler, all of them act like this is a dictatorship, but if that is so, tell me how are they protesting and not being suppressed?” he said. “Obedience to the law, before what you think is right, above all else.”
This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.
George Joseph is a criminal justice reporter at The Appeal. His work has appeared in outlets such as ProPublica, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and The Verge. Text him on the secure phone app Signal at 929-282-2471.