By Corina Oliquino

MANILA –Detained Opposition Sen. Leila de Lima on January 5, released a statement calling for an investigation into the China-backed Safe Philippines project, which will install closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in select cities in Metro Manila and Davao City.

De Lima said the project “is an opportunity for China to conduct espionage operations in the country,” adding that Filipinos’ right to privacy requires a Senate inquiry into how information will be collected by Chinese firms behind the project.

“Commercial contracts with companies whose international operations have put at risk the rights of the people to privacy, entails careful scrutiny and utmost diligence in order to prevent abuses and violation of rights,” De Lima said.

“The matter of improving the country’s technological capability in the enforcement of laws must be put on a scale to strike a balance between gaining technological competence and yielding access to information from our country and our citizens,” she added.

Prior to her recent statement, De Lima also filed Senate Resolution No. 275 on December 16 to “formally call for a Senate inquiry” on the project.

“Granting a country whose global reputation for its forceful espionage activities has raised worldwide concern, the opportunity to create a surveillance system in our country should raise a red flag for our policymakers to ensure that none of our national interests are compromised by such agreements, particularly our national security,” De Lima in a dispatch she sent from her jail cell in Camp Crame to Rappler.

“Commercial contracts with companies whose international operations have put at risk the rights of the people to privacy (entail) careful scrutiny and utmost diligence in order to prevent abuses and violation of rights,” she added.

Under the project, advanced CCTV cameras will be installed in participating cities of Quezon, Marikina, Parañaque, Pasig, San Juan, Valenzuela and Davao to help curb crime and improve emergency response time.

Last November 22, Safe PH project has launched its pilot in Marikina, citing the city’s reputation for having disciplined citizens.

“A similar system is in place in many cities in the world especially in large metropolitan cities like Metro Manila. It’s about time we have a similar system in our country,” DILG Chief Eduardo Año said in a statement, noting the project will upgrade the 911 emergency system of the DILG-Philippine National Police (PNP).

Año said the project will be used to “improve public safety, evidence collection in the event of criminal activities, incident prevention measures for disaster-related mitigation and response, and police and fire emergency response in addressing traffic and criminal incidents.”

“Under this project, we can reduce crime by 15 percent and improve response time by 25 percent,” he said.

In a report by Rappler, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) awarded the project to China International Telecommunication Construction Corporation, which will provide equipment along with Huawei last November 2018.

Safe Philippines project’s physical construction will begin early this year and is aimed to be completed by late 2021 or early 2022.

Concerns raised

In another report by The Philippine Star, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto filed a similar resolution as early as January of 2019 and raised the same concern relating to security, citing hacking and espionage allegations against Huawei.

Last year, Año insisted that the Government would be handling all data collected by the equipment through Huawei.

Tayo ang maghahawak ng lahat ng data, tayo ang magpapatakbo, tayo ang maglalagay ng mga security protocols, pati anti-cyber warfare ano diyan. So, wala tayong dapat ikabahala rito… Wala rin tayong ilalagay dito na mga classified information, kasi ito ay public safety,” Año said.

Walang mga top secret or secret files na ilalagay dito. Ito lahat ay para masiguro na nakikita natin ‘yung community, especially public places, at madali nating maso-solve ang ano mang crime na mangyayari,” he added.

In 2018, the DILG said the project was not primarily for surveillance and was simply an “integrated system to improve police response time as well as to deter and reduce crime.”

Aside from Recto and De Lima, former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio raised similar concerns when he warned of the dangers that came with Chinese control of the country’s power grid following the influx of China-funded projects during the Duterte administration, which sought closer ties with China and Russia as part of its “divorce plans” with longtime ally and former colonizer the United States.