AFP sees low risk for spying as China-backed Dito set to install cell towers in camps

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Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 11) — There's "very low" risk for security breaches and spying as China-backed Dito Telecommunity has been allowed to set up cell towers inside military camps, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said Friday.

AFP Spokesperson MGen. Edgard Arevalo said the military sees low risk in letting the third telecommunications player put up cell sites inside military camps, adding that this was thoroughly studied by information and communications technology experts thoroughly studied by information and communications technology experts part of the country's forces.

"Low threat in terms of 'yung sinasabi na concerns about spying, concerns about listening devices or eavesdropping. Pinag-aralan na po natin 'yan," Arevalo told CNN Philippines' The Source. "I just cannot mention everything because those are part of matters also of national security... May mga expert tayo na nakakaintindi rin diyan."

[Translation: There's a low threat in terms of concerns about spying, listening devices or eavesdropping. We have studied that. I just can't mention everything because those are part of matters also of national security... We also have experts who can understand that.]

​Foreigners, which may include Chinese experts who will work on the towers inside military compounds, will also be allowed to enter after screening. "If it’s part of the maintenance and putting up, I understand they may be allowed but subject to stringent security and identification requirements," Arevalo said, adding that any installation or repair works will be accompanied by technology experts from the AFP as well as from the National Telecommunications Commission and the Department of Information and Communications Technology.

The AFP official added that they also drew confidence from the endorsement of Dito's towers by the National Telecommunications Commission and the Department of Information and Communications Technology, as well as an approved franchise by Congress.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced earlier this week that he has signed a deal with Dito allowing them to put up towers inside camps.

In a separate statement on Sunday, Arevalo said the number of cell sites to be put up has yet to be determined, adding Dito will still send their proposal which the FP will vet and decide on.

"The intent of the MOA to allow Dito to collocate their facilities in AFP Camps is necessarily subject to situations and limitations unique in every military installation. Therefore, notwithstanding the letter and intent of the MOA, there is a tedious process that is required —and the AFP’s concurrence, as the host, will have to be secured first," he said.

READ: Allowing China-backed Dito to build cell sites in military camps a ‘dumb’ move as security concerns hound PH — Carpio

Dito is a mobile services provider slated to rollout early 2021, backed by businessman Dennis Uy's Udenna Corporation and China Telecom. The Chinese government corporation invested $5.4 billion (about ₱60 billion) in Dito after it was named as the third major player.

Tower plan long submitted

The joint venture plans to put up 10,000 cell towers in the next five years, and promises to provide internet speeds of at least 27 megabits per second to more than a third of the population on its first year of operation.

​In a public advisory, Dito said the locations of its cell towers, base stations, and other structures were part of the plan it submitted to authorities before it secured a license to operate in July 2019. Four companies – namely Huawei, ZTE, Nokia-Huaxin, and Uy's Udenna Infrastructure – have been tapped for land acquisition and lease agreements.

The statement, issued by site acquisition legal officer Atty. Karen Santos and retired MGen. Rodolfo Santiago, said only the four vendors and their agents are authorized to execute deals on Dito's behalf, adding that they can only provide up to three months' worth of advance rental fees to landowners.

Santiago is Dito's chief technology officer and was the commandant of the AFP's Command and General Staff College before he retired in 2016.

Separately, the AFP said it found no issues with the cell tower deal so far.

"The reason why he (Sec. Lorenzana) signed it already is because na-satisfy naman siya sa pinresent ng [he was satisfied with what was presented by] AFP in terms of what preparations, what measures have been instituted to ensure that national security will be protected," Arevalo said.

"We already addressed that, very low ang risk na magkaroon ng ganoong possibility [the risk for that possibility is very low]... We think this is not a cause of major concern," he added.

RELATED: NTC extends Dito Telecommunity deadline to deliver on technical audit requirements

​'Revoke cell tower deal'

Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez rejected Lorenzana's decision.

"Whatever risk there, even if it’s low, we have to be on the side of safety, we have to be always on the side of national security and sovereignty. If they admit that there’s a risk, then why should we allow that to happen?," Rodriguez said, warning that the Chinese firm could easily slip listening devices or cameras on its tower equipment.

He pointed out the problem in giving Dito the same leverage as Globe and Smart, as the latter did not pose security risks as these were fully owned by Filipinos. "We have a conflict. Why will we allow a company with Chinese interest in our military camps?," Rodriguez said, referring to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

READ: House OKs on third reading bill granting franchise to DITO telco

​Senator Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan also wants the contract revoked amid fears of security and data breaches.

In a statement on Sunday, Bayan Muna Chairman Neri Colmenares also said putting the towers on camps was a threat to the country's safety and sovereignty at risk.

"We have a dangerous dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea and allowing China entry into our strategic industries, like the telecommunication industry, constitutes a grave threat to the Philippines. China poses a military threat to the Philippines not only in the South China Sea but also through its control of key and sensitive Philippine industries such as the telecommunications sector," he said.

Colmenares also called for the abrogation of the AFP MOA with DITO and the withdrawal of Lorenzana's approval of DITO towers in military camps

Arevalo said the camps where the towers will be put up have not yet been identified as the agreement has just been signed. However, Rodriguez said the Department of National Defense should already rescind the agreement for the sake of national security.

"Be that as it may, magpapatuloy ang ating ginagawang pag-evaluate ng ating telecommunications [we will continue evaluating our telecommunications] to make sure ang ating national security will be protected," the AFP spokesman assured, adding that no other country can say they are fully protected against any security issues.

He added that military officials are very particular against spying, saying they leave cell phones off and outside conference rooms during important meetings.