‘Better safe than sorry’: Recto wants no Dito cell sites in military bases

For the sake of national security, the country’s China-backed 3rd telco should just build its cell sites in places other than military bases, Senator Ralph Recto said on Thursday, September 10.

Dito Telecommunity, a consortium that includes Beijing-run China Telecom, recently got Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s approval to put up cell sites in military camps and properties alongside existing equipment by the other two telcos, Globe and Smart.

The arrangement may leave the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) vulnerable to spying by China, as its own risk analysis found. However, the AFP said it can put “safeguards” to avert security breaches.

“I am not yet ready to fully subscribe to suspicions that having [Dito] inside these national security compounds is like letting in an electronic Trojan horse. But it is better to be safe than sorry,” Recto, the Senate president pro tempore, said in a statement.

Military installations occupy a minuscule fraction of the Philippines’ 30-million-hectare landmass, he pointed out.

“Dito can build their sites anywhere in this wide expanse of land – and government should help them – except in the 25 Navy bases and stations, 53 Army bases, and 17 Air Force bases and stations, which should be declared as no-go zones for this company,” he said.

“The military is not that big a landlord whose holdings are crucial in a telco’s operations. Why insist on building on military real estate?” Recto added.

The lawmaker suggested letting Dito build cell sites in the country’s nearly 50,000 public school and state university campuses, following health and environmental laws. Dito could then pay rent in cash or in kind – such as free broadband connections for students.

The AFP does not need a “land lease sideline business” anyway, because it has enjoyed a “most favored agency status” in terms of its share of the national budget over the last 50 years, Recto noted.

The military’s “co-location” deals with telcos are not a matter of necessity, “more so if the tenant is 40% owned by a state-owned foreign company whose principal allegiance, under the laws of that country, is to its government,” he added.

The AFP earlier said Dito sought a similar arrangement to what Globe and Smart has with the military for security, especially in critical areas. The military would then benefit from equipment, training, and better internet connection gained from having telcos within their properties.

What happened before?

Recto was one of several lawmakers who flagged the AFP’s cell site co-location deal with Dito when it was initially signed in September 2019.

They said the arrangement exposes the military to possible espionage by Beijing because China Telecom, as a state-run entity, is mandated by Chinese law to provide intelligence to their government.

Acknowledging the risks, Lorenzana held off signing the agreement after the Senate asked to review it. On September 8, nearly a year since Dito and the AFP made the agreement, Lorenzana told a House panel that he had given the deal his final approval, since he received no further complaint from the Senate.

The AFP Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication, Electronics, and Information Systems (J6) ran a risk analysis of the deal with Dito, and found that it exposes the military to electronic and radio frequency eavesdropping, interception, and signal jamming.

Although these risks were deemed mostly “highly likely” to occur, the military study concluded that the net risks were low because of control measures the AFP already had or was planning to acquire.

Experts who studied the agreement and the AFP’s risk analysis told Rappler last December that the military’s analysis was insufficient and the “control measures” it specified in the study were entry-level. The deal with Dito, they said, would leave the military an “open gate” to cyber attacks.

China itself has a history of cyber espionage, which the AFP appeared to have discounted, the experts said.

Dito Telecommunity also includes Filipino businessman Dennis Uy’s Udenna Corporation and Chelsea Logistics. Uy was one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s major campaign contributors in the 2016 elections.

Dito has denied it would present national security threats, and emphasized it would be investing P250 billion to improve the country’s telco industry, along with jobs for many Filipinos. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.