MANILA -- China Telecom's Philippine affiliate has enlisted U.S. company Fortinet as a key cybersecurity partner in a bid to allay fears over potential spying by Beijing.
Dito Telecommunity, a joint venture between state-owned China Telecom and Davao tycoon Dennis Uy, a campaign donor to President Rodrigo Duterte, is building its network after winning a bid in 2018 to be country's third major telecom player.
But Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana's recent statement that he had permitted Dito to build cellular towers inside military camps renewed fears of espionage by China. Manila and Beijing remain locked in a bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea, even as Duterte has courted China for investments, including that of China Telecom's.
In an online press conference on Thursday, Dito Chief Administrative Officer Adel Tamano stressed that Dito is controlled and managed by Filipinos, with China Telecom owning 40% and Uy's group 60%.
"If this agreement passed the muster of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Department of National Defense and the National Security Adviser, I think we should put some trust that this agreement will not be a vehicle for spying," Tamano said. "We take cybersecurity and spying seriously and we will not allow that [to happen]."
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros has called for a probe into the deal between the Philippine military and Dito, citing Chinese laws that oblige domestic entities to assist the government in intelligence gathering. "There is also the Chinese Counter-Espionage Law that Chinese corporations cannot refuse to assist their government in this regard," Hontiveros said.
Tamano said Dito's allegiance is with the Philippines. "As part of the management, I cannot imagine us saying, 'We approve spying, we approve getting classified information,'" Tamano said. "We'll go to jail."
Dito's network infrastructure is powered by Chinese companies including Huawei Technologies and ZTE, which are also suppliers to the Philippines' two existing major players -- PLDT, backed by Japan's NTT Group, and Globe Telecom, a unit of Singapore Telecommunications.
To allay spying fears, Dito, which last month bagged congressional approval for a fresh 25-year franchise, has enlisted the services of U.S. company Fortinet as part of a billion pesos ($20 million) cybersecurity operations center.
"If you don't trust Chinese equipment, maybe you trust U.S. cybersecurity solutions," said Dito Chief Technology Officer Rodolfo Santiago, a retired general.
California-based Fortinet is founded and led by Ken Xie, a Stanford University-educated cybersecurity expert. It has contracts with large American companies.
Santiago said Dito has yet to build towers in military camps. The company has so far built over 800 towers out of the 1,300 required to cover its pledge of providing coverage to 37% of the population. It plans to spend 27 billion pesos next year to expand its network and build 5G infrastructure.
The company missed a key technical audit in July due to pandemic-related lockdowns that delayed its network build-up, but it remains on track for its commercial launch in March 2021, officials said.