December 4, 2022

Can your messages, photos, and videos in Facebook Messenger be used as evidence against you?

The Supreme Court, in Cadajas v. People, GR. 247348, promulgated on Nov. 16, 2021, is an interesting read especially in this viral times in social media.

But first, let us define the right to privacy. It is the right to be free from unwarranted exploitation of one’s person or from intrusion into one’s private activities in such a way as to cause humiliation to a person’s ordinary sensibilities. The right also contemplates informational privacy or the right to control “the processing of personal information.”

Indubitably, a citizen has the right “not to be exposed on the Internet in matters involving one’s private life, such as acts having no relation to public interest or concern.” This right is enshrined in no less than the Bill of Rights,

Petitioner Christian Cadajas was accused of violating Republic Act 9775 or the Anti-Child Pornography Act.

In 2016, when he was 24 years old, he had a romantic relationship with a female minor, then 14. They communicated through Facebook Messenger – the minor using her mother’s mobile phone.

Once, he urged the minor to send photos of her private parts, and she obliged. The minor failed to log out of her Facebook account and the mother sued.

The regional trial court found Cadajas guilty and the Court of Appeals affirmed the RTC’s ruling.

On appeal, Cadajas claimed the photographs presented as evidence against him were taken from his Facebook Messenger account, which he claimed violated his right to privacy and any evidence obtained amounts to a fruit of poisonous tree. He also invoked the Data Privacy Act and his having a consensual relationship with the minor.

The SC found that the chat thread contained in Messenger was not obtained through the efforts of police officers or any State agent, but from a private individual who had access to the photos and conversations in the chat. Thus, the SC rejected the claim that the chat thread presented as evidence against him by the victim should be excluded.

“While the constitutional provision highlights the importance of the right to privacy and its consequent effect on the rules on admissibility of evidence, one must not lose sight of the fact that the Bill of Rights was intended to protect private individuals against government intrusions. Hence, its provisions are not applicable between and among private individuals.”

The rule governing the admissibility of an evidence under the Constitution must affect only those pieces of evidence obtained by the State through its agents. The photos used in evidence were obtained by the mother of the complainant.

By informing the minor the password to his Facebook Messenger account, his privacy could not be violated and he lost a reasonable expectation of privacy over the contents of his social media account. Even if the minor was only forced by her mother to obtain the photos and messages, there is still no violation of the his privacy, since by allowing another person access to his account, he made its contents available not only to the minor, but to other persons the minor might show the account to, regardless if she was forced to do so.

Also, the Data Privacy Act allows the processing of data and sensitive personal information where it relates to the determination of criminal liability of a data subject (Section 19). The SC also rejected his “sweetheart” theory, which operates on the premise that the violation committed was consensual and a product of love.

The SC has ruled that cajoling a minor to send him photos of her breasts and vagina was not an expression of love, but an advance of lust on his part.

Moreover, the sweetheart defense should not to be invoked in cases involving child pornography, because children are easily induced or coerced to engage in explicit sexual acts under the pretense of a romantic relationship.

The SC also took judicial notice of the fact that minors between the ages of 12 and 18 years are sexually curious and consequently vulnerable to the deception of adults.

Indeed, the Internet may reorder human relationships (Disini Secretary of Justice, G.R. 203335, Feb. 2014), but the need to respect one another remains essential, in whatever form that may take.

Like Inday Badiday always says, careful!
Sigh.