At Dito franchise hearing, senators hit lack of cyber defense plan vs attacks
MANILA, Philippines — Senators on Monday questioned the apparent lack of mechanisms to combat cyberthreats and attacks against the country’s internet infrastructure, including those posed by state-sponsored hacking groups.
As the Senate public services committee tackled the franchise renewal of China-backed Dito Telecommunity, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. was quizzed about cyberthreats against the country and how the government would handle such attacks.
“We are aware of possible threats. We know that in cyberspace there are third party operators or unknown hackers who could always disturb our systems,” Esperon told the committee.
“We are not only targeting those sponsored by Chinese but in general. When the arbitral award came out there was a lot of hacking that we experienced. Many government offices were hacked. It may not be necessarily China but they could be located in other countries. That is the kind of threat that we face in cybersecurity,” he added.
At present, there is a cybersecurity group within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Esperon noted.
Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate public services panel, then asked Esperon about mechanisms in place should the country’s internet infrastructure suffer an attack.
“Please elaborate because we know there is a threat, but how are we going to address it if it actually happens. Will we shut down the system for a few hours?” Poe asked.
In response, Esperon said it should also be incumbent upon telecommunications companies to comply with the national cybersecurity plan.
He also sought more funding under the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) for an “operations center for lawful intercepts.”
“Right now we don’t have that?” asked Poe.
“We don’t have that. That’s why we need some funds for that for the DICT,” Esperon said in response.
‘There’s really no plan’
Hearing this, Poe pointed to an apparent lack of a proper plan to protect the country from cyberattacks.
“This is the problem. We’re talking about the franchise of Dito Telecommunity, one of the issues being brought forth is how do we protect ourselves knowing that a certain percentage of ownership is owned by a foreign national,” Poe said.
“How can the government assure us that they’ve given a fair assessment of the safety to our sovereignty if we don’t even have a proper cybersecurity group that does the assessment?” she added.
Dito, where Chinese state-owned China Telecom has a 40-percent stake, is a conglomerate led by Davao-based businessman Dennis Uy. In 2018, it was selected to become the country’s third telecommunications player in the country.
Concerns were raised over the presence of Dito in the country after the country’s defense department earlier inked a deal with the com that would allow the company to build cell sites inside Philippine military camps.
“Listening to Secretary Esperon, they’re drafting this and that but when it comes to the actual mechanism in place should we have a threat, there’s really no plan,” Poe went on.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros also questioned moves allowing the presence of Dito Telecommunity in the country when the Philippines appears to be unprepared to defend itself against cyberthreats and attacks.
“We cannot divorce Dito’s franchise from ChinaTel’s stake in it. At a time when China continues her adventurism in contested territories in the West Philippine Sea, it is even more crucial that we stay vigilant and fiercely protect what is rightfully ours,” she said.
This developed, after engineer Pierre Galla of internet and ICT rights advocacy group Democracy.net.ph said that the Philippines would yet have to establish a “cyber defense doctrine” to guide the military in combating threats in the digital landscape.
“There hasn’t been any reports on what is the cyber defense posture of the Philippines,” Galla said.
‘Proxy of Chinese regime’
“ChinaTel is not a private corporation. This is a proxy of a Chinese regime intent on pushing its weight around and imposing its will upon the region,” Hontiveros said.
She said that allowing what she believed to be a “proxy of the Chinese government” to set up networks in the country and facilities in military camps could open opportunities for a “Chinese cyber offensive” against the Philippines.
Esperon said, however, that telecommunication companies Globe and Smart also have foreign partners like Dito.
“Globe is not a 100-percent Filipino company. Globe has Singtel as a partner, Singapore. Smart has another foreign partner, this is Indonesia,” he said.
But Hontiveros pointed out that, unlike China, these countries did not oblige state-owned firms to access state secrets when required.
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