A project to install 12,000 closed-circuit television cameras all over Manila looks like the kind of modern technology we need yesterday.
For any city that serves as the beating hub of government, economy and population, an integrated video surveillance system offers rich potential to curb crime and traffic congestion and boost connectivity.
But it took an eagle-eyed senator to sound the alarm on a 20-billion-peso (Bt12.3 billion) project shrouded in secrecy, one that raises questions about risks to state security and discovered only during the Senate debates on the 2019 national budget.
One of 29 agreements signed during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Manila last month, the project was awarded to another state-run Chinese company, leading Senator Ralph Recto to warn of a “security threat”.
The senator’s grilling brought to light the fact that a commercial contract had already been signed by Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano and the chair of China International Telecommunication Construction Corp (CITCC). The project will be financed by a loan and implemented next year.
As it happens, CITCC is an affiliate of China Telecom, a partner of the Mislatel Consortium that recently won the contract to be the third telecom provider in the country. That’s another deal that many observers see as fraught with national security risks for the Philippines.
The supplier of the CCTVs, meanwhile, would be Huawei, a Chinese company that has been blacklisted by the United States, Japan and Australia and is under tight watch by a growing list of other countries such as Germany and France for alleged hacking and spying.
Many countries have blocked Huawei from building their next-generation 5G telecom networks over concerns that Huawei’s equipment has spyware technology that would be used to spy for Beijing.
On top of that, Meng Wanzhou, Huawei chief financial officer and daughter of its founder, was recently arrested in Canada at the request of the United States, on charges of violating sanctions on Iran.
China, an authoritarian state, already leads the way in Big Brother surveillance of its citizens, with a disturbing system in place to reward or punish Chinese citizens based on their social behaviour as monitored through online surveillance and a legion of CCTVs everywhere in that country.
The chequered background of Chinese state-owned companies wanting to do business in the Philippines, and their role in what feels like the expanding incursion of China into Philippine politics and society, are causes for concern.
The choice of pilot areas for the project – Metro Manila and Davao City – is no doubt inspired by President Rodrigo Duterte’s cosy relationship with Beijing, but it also exposes the country’s current two seats of political and economic power to potential spying by China.
The project’s technology will be China-designed, from the command centre to be established for the Philippine National Police (PNP)’s 911 hotline, the Bureau of Fire Protection and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, to the thousands of CCTV cameras with facial and vehicle recognition to be installed at a host of public and residential areas such as roads and crossings, business districts, stadiums, science and technology parks, etc.
Can we trust a China state-run firm with such a surveillance network directed at Philippine institutions and Filipino citizens?
“China will have access on surveillance, the PNP database and big data on Filipinos, and we would be paying for it,” Recto warned.
Besides the lack of transparency, Recto said it appears it was the Chinese firms that solicited the project during Duterte’s visit to China in 2016. Worse, they also wrote the terms of reference of the agreement.
Without thorough vetting and scrutiny of this project, the Philippines may well end up playing into the hands of an aggressive neighbour that has had no qualms undermining the Philippines’ international standing and violating its interests in the West Philippine Sea dispute.
An inquiry into both the cost and national security implications of this project deserves staunch public support, as does the Senate’s probe on the potential risks of the Mislatel-Chinese consortium’s third telco contract.
It is incumbent upon senators to set aside political expediency to ensure that the country’s best interests are safeguarded. They owe it to the people to ask of a project called “Safe Philippines”: Safe from whom?