Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo once said that President Rodrigo Duterte “is making his enemies friends” to hopefully assuage tensed debates on the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China over portions of the South China Sea.
“He (Duterte) is making his enemies friends so that both sides will mutually gain benefit from whatever they have,” Panelo told reporters in Malacañang.
Duterte and Xi engaged in various bilateral talks, that somehow eased the tension between their countries. And ever since Duterte fostered warmer ties with Beijing, Philippines has been granted China-funded infrastructure projects and various loans.
So, is it safe to assume that China is a friend? Or is China a wolf in sheep’s clothing from the very beginning?
Pogos growth in the Philippines lead to a Chinese crime wave
On the night of December 9 in Makati City, screams of a terrified woman being pulled into a van echoed that left visibly shocked witnesses on the area of kidnapping with no choice but to stand momentarily. Police later identified the victim as Zhou Mei from China – and the kidnappers were fellow nationals. Abductions involving and perpetrated by mainland Chinese can be linked directly to Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos), which are locally based but cater to gamblers in China, where the activity is illegal.
However big billions of taxes that the country may acquire from online gaming companies and casinos, with the issuance of Pogo licenses by the Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), the country has become a new frontier for illicit activity.
“The Philippines is becoming a haven for Chinese criminals and criminal syndicates,” said Teresita Ang-See, chair of the anti-crime watchdog Movement for the Restoration of Peace and Order.
With dozens if not hundreds of underground Pogos sprouting overnight, Pagcor said there were 72 licensed Pogos, 49 of which were “operational”. Then Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) said that only 10 of the 49 were paying franchise taxes, generating zero rvenue for the government. Undocumented permit-less Pogos is just one problem being handled by the Philippine authorities everyday, a rise in undocumented workers from China is another Chinese-related problem that seems unresolvable.
In October, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that the government had this year shut down nearly 200 illegal gambling operations. Despite the government’s efforts to end unaccredited Pogos, nothing seems to have changed. Pogos apparently have the ability to appear anywhere.
China-owned “third telco” to control telecoms and power assets in the Philippines?
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) already signed the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with a China-owned telecommunication company – the potential “third telco” of the Philippines – to build a cell tower in all of the AFP camps. Given China’s “espionage activities”, some disagrees with this move for it could potentially leak to the Chinese military “classified information” by the AFP and putting the country’s security at risk.
Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares, who is against such acts, tagged China’s “espionage activities” as: “Chinese creeping control over telecoms and power assets in the Philippines.” Colmenares reiterated that the government’s decision of letting Dito Telecommunity become the “third telecoms player” is a wrong move for it is a company owned by the Chinese government who we don’t know if we’re considered by them as their friends or foe. “Given the maritime dispute with China, it is absurd for the Philippines to give it control of our telecommunications system.”
Dismayed with the signing of AFP’s MOA with the Dito Telecommunity, Colmenares stated “It will make the Philippine military vulnerable to Chinese hacking and espionage.” The former Congressman is also worried that the national grid may be cyber-attacked once China became one of the co-owners of the national grid. “They (Chinese company) admitted in their annual report, its [system is] vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Even if they say it’s immune to cyber-attacks, China has proven, and many hackers have proven actually, that anything can be hacked. Don’t tell us that our grid is safe from China when in fact it’s the largest stockholder in that company.”
Oftentimes, cell site towers aren’t just typical cell site towers, this could also be a Base Transceiver Station (BTS) – offices for genius “system hackers” who tends to meddle with the exchange of communication on that specific tower alone which covers a vast community of people. This meddling by the “system hacker” is referred to as MITM attacks (Man-In-The Middle). MITM attacks are alarming for a “system hacker” could easily dictate the mood and the content of the conversation without them knowing that there’s a third person answering for them.
With this MISLATEL project, millions of Filipinos living nearby military and police camps will be affected bigtime.
Wiretapping is still a thing
Wiretapping, the monitoring of telephone and Internet-based conversations by a third party, often by covert means, occurs when a person using an inductive coil tap (telephone pickup coil) attached it to the handset or near the base of the telephone. However useful for undercover police and military operations, wiretapping isn’t legal for it violates an individual’s privacy. In special cases, wiretapping may be legalized if the court permits.
In this day and age of modernization, government agencies from just asking for phone companies to tap mobile phones could now monitor mobile phone communications and decrypt its audio by means of using highly technical equipment, something that China could easily manufacture that could potentially aid them in their “espionage activities”.
And there’s this so-called MESSAGETAP. In an article written by Lindsey O’Donnell, she reported that this malware being used for cyber-espionage efforts by China-linked threat group APT41 could intercept telecom SMS server traffic and could sniff out certain phone numbers and SMS messages – particularly those with keywords relating to Chinese political dissidents. Additionally, she discussed that this espionage tool, dubbed MessageTap, was discovered by FireEye Mandiant during a 2019 investigation of a cluster of Linux servers within an unspecified telecom network; these operated as Short Message Service Center (SMSC) servers. In mobile networks, SMSCs are responsible for sending SMS messages to an intended recipient or storing them until the recipient has come online.
“The tool was deployed by APT41 in a telecommunications network provider in support of Chinese espionage efforts. APT41’s operations have included state-sponsored cyber-espionage missions as well as financially motivated intrusions. These operations have spanned from as early as 2012 to the present day.” FireEye researchers Raymond Leong, Dan Perez and Tyler Dean explained further.
Philippines is suspected to be victimized now by the aforementioned malware and the government must act now. Finding a healthy balance between providing the nation’s needs – be it economically-related or crime-eradication related – and protecting its citizens privacy rights. Cause if not, China’s “checkmate” move will be upon us on a game we know we’re going to lose from the very start.