AFP eyes more provisions in deal with China-backed Dito to protect networks from 'intrusion'
File photo shows a cell tower.
The STAR/File
AFP eyes more provisions in deal with China-backed Dito to protect networks from 'intrusion'
Bella Perez-Rubio ( - September 17, 2020 - 12:07pm

MANILA, Philippines (Updated Sept. 18 2020, 11:29 a.m.) — The Armed Forces of the Philippines said it wants to include additional provisions in its recently inked deal with a China-backed telco that would safeguard its networks from intrusion. 

Maj. Gen. Jose Niembra, AFP intelligence chief, said the military wants Filipino engineers exclusively working on the cell towers to be built by Dito Telecommunity Corp. as well as complete access to these sites once they are built. 

As he faced a panel of the Commission on Appointments on Wednesday, Niembra revealed to lawmakers that these additional precautions were being considered due to the fact that 40% of Dito is owned by a Chinese corporation. 

Dito CME is under the Udenna Group of Companies. Filipino-Chinese businessman Dennis Uy, a friend of President Rodrigo Duterte, is the chairman and CEO of Udenna.

"Actually, there are already Smart and Globe cell sites in military camps all over the country...and we have not experienced any problem so far. The question is with Dito communications because we perceive that because of its Chinese nature, there may be threats," he said. 

'Additional safeguards'

Although he downplayed their likelihood, the AFP intelligence chief further specified radio frequency interception, eaves dropping, or radio frequency jamming as the possible threats being considered by the military. 

Niembra also listed three additional provisions that the military is considering adding to its memorandum of agreement with Dito to safeguard against any possible intrusion of its networks: 

  • "First of all, the employment of all Filipino engineers just to make sure that loyalty will be to the Philippines, to our side."
  • "Secondly, the MOA states that our engineers will be present during the installation, during the maintenance,"
  • "And [third], we will be granted access or security audit, anytime that we want, to these facilities."

"All of this is to make sure that we will prevent intrusion or breaching of our own networks. Aside from the fact that we have competent technical people to see to it that our communications will not be breached," he added. 

The AFP intelligence chief also reiterated an assurance made by Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, AFP spokesman, last week, deemphasizing the risk that the military's network could be compromised. 

"All the technical people in the Armed Forces found the risk to be low. So there is a low risk or very low possibility that the cell sites might intrude into our networks," he said. 

Strong objections from lawmakers, former justice

Soon after the deal with Dito was announced by the Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana last week, it was met with strong objections from several lawmakers. 

Critics of the agreement include Rep. Rufus Rodriguez (Cagayan de Oro), Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, and Sens. Risa Hontiveros and Francis Pangilinan. 

Retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio also criticized the deal, calling the risks posed by such an agreement a "no-brainer." 

"I think it’s very dumb of us to allow those towers to be installed inside military camps,” Carpio said in an interview with CNN Philippines’ The Source last week. 

“You ask any security analyst who’s familiar with cybersecurity, and they will tell you, absolutely do not allow towers to be installed in your military camps," he added.

Both Pangilinan and Hontiveros have flagged Article 7 of the Chinese National Intelligence Law and China's 2014 Counter-Espionage Law which requires all organizations to support the states intelligence work and prohibits Chinese corporations from refusing to assist their government in this regard, respectively. 

RELATED: Lorenzana urged to rescind deal allowing China-backed telco to build cell sites in military campsSenate probe sought into allowing China-backed telco to build cell sites in military camps

Rodriguez, Hontiveros, Pangilinan and Carpio, all further cited the country's existing territorial disputes with China in their objections to the deal. 

"Are we allowing ourselves to be occupied? A China-owned telco in our own military camps is very suspicious, especially since China has not stopped its aggressive claims in the West Philippine Sea, its destruction of natural resources, and its abuse of Filipino fishermen," Hontiveros warned in Filipino.

Meanwhile, Recto argued that military camps should be a "no-go zone" for Dito and it should instead consider building cell towers in the country's almost 50,000 public schools and state universities.


Editor's note: An earlier version of the article showed that China Telecom Corp. owns 40% of Dito CME. This has been corrected.

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