Dito picks US cybersecurity providers to ease China-spying fears

18, Sep. 2020

Logo of Dito Telecommunity Corp. seen inside its headquarters in Taguig City. Picture taken in January 2020. (NNA)
Logo of Dito Telecommunity Corp. seen inside its headquarters in Taguig City. Picture taken in January 2020. (NNA)

MANILA, NNA – Dito Telecommunity Corp. is tapping the services of 13 companies from the United States to be its cybersecurity providers in a bid to allay fears over spying and data theft because its Chinese partner is a state-backed company.

Dito, a telco start-up backed by Filipino businessman Dennis Uy’s Udenna Corp. and China Telecom, said it is already relying on US-based firms such as NexusGuard, McAfee, Nessus, Microsoft and Cisco ISE to boost cybersecurity and data protection.

Just recently, the telco, which will launch its services next year, deliberately picked Fortinet Inc., a US-based listed firm, to provide “primary security solutions”, said Rodolfo Santiago, Dito's chief technology officer.

“If China Telecom is really in control of everything, then Dito would not be able to allow a US company to provide cybertechnology solutions as there are cheaper ones from China, he said in defence of Dito as an independently run Philippine company at a press briefing on Thursday.

News of a deal between Dito and the government for the building of cell towers inside Philippine military camps have triggered fears of espionage recently.

To further ease public worries, Dito will spend 1 billion pesos ($20.6 million) to address their personal data concerns by building a security operations center to monitor any cyber attacks this year, Santiago said.

On its website, Fortinet claims its products, which range from firewalls to cloud services and Internet of Things, are being used by major enterprises such as Fortune 500 companies and government organizations around the world, including the Philippines.

“Dito Telecommunity will leverage Fortinet’s comprehensive network security platform, serving as its primary cybersecurity provider,” Dito said.

However, some quarters are harbouring suspicions of Fortinet. In June this year, an official in Taiwan called on its government to ban the use of products and services rendered by the company because of its alleged ties with Beijing after noting that its owners, two brothers, are Chinese-born.

When questioned by the media about this, Dito’s chief administrative officer Adel Tamano replied, “Are we saying that we should have banned them because they are of Chinese blood? Perhaps not.”

In 2019, the Armed Forces of the Philippines signed a memorandum of agreement with Dito to allow it to build cell sites inside military camps.

Last week, Philippine defense chief Delfin Lorenzana revealed that he had already given Dito the go-ahead to do so, renewing fears that it might pave the way for China to start spying or steal data.

The military later assured the public that it had put safeguards in place to protect national security. It said it had also allowed the country's first two telco players Smart Communications and Globe Telecom to install facilities inside military bases in the past.

Under its agreement with the military, Dito would not allow any non-Filipino personnel of the company to carry out work inside military camps. The military would also be checking on Dito’s cybersecurity protocols, said officials of Dito, which is the third telco player in the country.

Tamano pointed out that terms of their deal with the military is stricter and “cumbersome” compared to earlier agreements the military had with the two incumbent telco providers.

“The protection with regards to cybersecurity and access to classified information really is much weightier in this agreement than in the other agreements,” he said, emphasizing the layers of security imposed by the military.

Meanwhile, Dito has yet to build any facilities inside the military bases, according to Santiago.

Being a newly formed company, all of Dito’s technology will be based on what is brought in by its partner Chinese Telecom, said Victor Andres Manhit, president of policy think-tank Stratbase ADRi.

Unlike Dito, its two rival telcos rely on services of different foreign technology providers, said Manhit.

“There are certain laws that Chinese government or the central committee has the capacity to ask for data or information that pass through some of these networks in the name of Chinese national security,” he told NNA in an interview last week.

China Telecom has an almost 40 percent stake in the company. More than 60 percent is held by Dennis Uy, an ardent supporter of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who has been cultivating warm ties with Beijing while remaining distrustful of America.

Former opposition lawmaker Neri Colmenares also cited the same Chinese law when insisting that giving Dito access to military camps would be a threat to the country’s security.

“This means, all companies of China investing in the Philippines are like Trojan Horses that can be used by China anytime should the dispute in the West Philippine Sea escalate,” he told NNA last week.

The Philippines has disputes with China over certain areas of the South China Sea. Beijing had allegedly built military facilities in parts of the contested areas claimed by Manila.

Meanwhile, Dito dismissed such worries as “incredibly misplaced".

“Laws tend to be territorial in nature. There are very few laws that have extra territorial application, and especially penal laws. And so, that law may be valid in China. But it cannot be implemented here in the Philippines,” Tamano argued.

Dito is expected to commercially launch its internet services in March 2021. Many people are expecting it to break the duopoly in the telecommunications industry and provide faster and cheaper internet services in the country.