PerryScope: How safe is the ‘Safe Philippines’ project?

PerryScope: How safe is the ‘Safe Philippines’ project?

By Perry Diaz

Embroiled in controversy, the Safe Philippines project is facing strong opposition in the Philippine Senate due to negative reports about the contractor’s ties with China.  Allegations are that the Safe Philippines project would allow China to spy on the Philippines and pose national security risk.  

Safe Philippines is a 12,000-camera closed-circuit television (CCTV) system to be installed in the cities of Quezon, Marikina, Parañaque, Pasig, San Juan, Valenzuela, and Davao. The project is a partnership between the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and China International Telecommunication Construction Corporation (CITCC) and Huawei. CITCC will undertake the project while Huawei will supply the equipment. The project will cost P20.31 billion, of which P1.2 billion will be shouldered by the Philippine government, while the rest will be paid through a soft loan from China Eximbank.

CITCC is an affiliate of state-owned China Telecom, one of the firms in Mislatel Consortium, soon to become the country’s third telecommunication player. The project is supposed to start this year and will be completed by late 2021 or early 2022.

Red flags

But senators have raised red flags over the surveillance project since 2018 when then Senate President Ralph Recto filed a resolution to probe the surveillance system project, citing hacking and espionage allegations against Huawei.  However, nothing came out of that investigation.

Recently, Sen. Leila de Lima filed Senate Resolution No. 275 to formally call for a Senate inquiry on the Safe Philippines project, claiming that the project is an opportunity for China to spy on Filipinos.  She said Filipinos’ right to privacy requires a Senate inquiry into how information will be collected by the Chinese firms behind the project.

“Granting a country whose global reputation for its forceful espionage activities has raised worldwide concern, the opportunity to create a surveillance system in our country should raise a red flag for our policymakers to ensure that none of our national interests are compromised by such agreements, particularly our national security,” De Lima said in a dispatch she sent from her jail cell in Camp Crame.

However, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año had assured the project will be handled by Filipinos. “They provide the equipment, and after providing the equipment, we’ll take care of this. There will be no adviser, there will be no Chinese technician, all Filipino,” he said.According to Año, the Safe Philippines project will enable a more efficient management of public order, safety, and security.  He said the project is expected to reduce crime rate by 15% and increase response rate of law enforcers and responders by 25%. These include police and fire personnel that act during natural and human-induced emergencies.So, what’s the problem then?Several countries – U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and Australia — have banned public procurement of equipment from Huawei or have rejected it from developing their information and communications technology infrastructure due to “rising security concerns.”BackdoorsA recent Bloomberg report revealed that European telecommunications company Vodafone had troubles with “hidden backdoors in the software” that could have spelled out a security issue, giving Huawei “unauthorized access to [Vodafone’s] fixed-line network in Italy” back in 2011 and 2012.

 According to the report, “a backdoor is vulnerability in a device or software that could allow access to a system by a third party.”  It is a means of bypassing the security mechanisms of a computer system to access its data. Western nations like the US are worried that it might be in the interest of Huawei – and by extension, the Chinese government – to use backdoors to collect intelligence on countries where their equipment is used. The intelligence collected may then be given to China, which can be used commercially or politically.  Further, the report said: “Although it has been clarified that the problems back then were solved, some people involved in the security discussions, according to Bloomberg, revealed that problems remained.  In fact, they said that problems were even present outside Italy, in countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Portugal.”

Huawei had denied any connection to China, saying that it is owned by its employees.  However, its alleged ties with the Chinese government is a matter that still worries the U.S. and other countries in the West.

But its founder, Ren Zhengfei, was a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army. Can Huawei be coerced or swayed by the powers-that-be in China?

In December 2018, Huawei’s chief financial officer was ordered arrested by a New York court for alleged violation of sanctions in Iran.  It led the U.S. to ask a Canadian court to extradite her.  is a means of bypassing the security mechanisms of a computer system to access its data.      

Big Brother

The question is: With all the bad press Huawei has been getting, are there other issues that could compromise the Safe Philippines project from exposing the national security of the country and the privacy of the Filipino people from “Big Brother” intrusion?  In other words, what guarantees do Filipinos have that the Chinese government isn’t monitoring their moves?  It is a known fact that digital facial recognition is an integral part of CCTV.  That means that once your image is captured in the CCTV data base, people’s movements are monitored and recorded. 

And while the Safe Philippines project would reduce crime rate by 15% and increase response rate of law enforcers and responders by 25%, it deprives the citizens of 100% of their privacy.  Ultimately, the question is: How safe is the Safe Philippines project?

(PerryDiaz@gmil.com)    

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