Smart: We don’t have capability to bug phones

By Riza T. Olchondra, Gil C. Cabacungan Jr.
Last updated 04:23am (Mla time) 08/23/2007

MANILA, Philippines — Smart Communications Inc. Wednesday insisted it lacked the technology to eavesdrop on phone calls, rebutting a former Army sergeant who claimed to have recorded the “Hello Garci” tapes with the connivance of tech-savvy “contacts” within the company.


Smart, the cellular service provider of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., doesn’t have the “highly restricted equipment” needed to conduct even a court-sanctioned wiretapping operation, according to Smart corporate communications chief Ramon Isberto.


Isberto issued a denial shortly after retired T/Sgt. Vidal Doble, who used to be with the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP), told reporters that ISAFP had “somebody from Smart” to help spy on both administration and opposition personalities in the 2004 elections.


In a clandestine press conference in Makati City, Doble said ISAFP recruited “technical people” from Smart who had access to the network’s mainframe. He doubted, however, whether the company’s top executives knew of the operation.


Doble faced reporters a day after Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in a privilege speech, presented a video recording of Doble admitting that he and fellow ISAFP operatives tapped the phone conversations of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.


Lacson then said it would only take the cooperation of a service provider to help ISAFP with phone surveillance. He did not identify the service provider.


“This issue first came out two to three years ago, when the Garci scandal broke out. We have said then and we are saying again now (that) the company has not participated in any efforts to eavesdrop or monitor conversations,” Isberto said in a phone interview.


“Even if so ordered (by the court), we simply do not have the technical capability to do it. Eavesdropping on a conversation is no simple matter, even if it seems so when we read about it,” he said.


“Special equipment is needed for it and we do not have that. Not just anybody can get that because it is highly restricted equipment (and) presumably very expensive. Whoever did the eavesdropping had access to such equipment, but not us,” Isberto added.


The import or export of such equipment is strictly regulated worldwide, he said.


Isberto said the company had not been invited to any Senate inquiry on the “Hello Garci” tapes.


Internal probe?


He deferred comment when asked whether Smart had initiated an internal investigation on the alleged ISAFP “recruits” in the company.


Isberto said that to be able to split a phone signal from Smart’s main control room, the supposed ISAFP asset would have to use a decoder to sort out specific phone calls crisscrossing the system, which handles more than 24 million subscribers.


He dismissed as “highly speculative” Doble’s claims that ISAFP had managed to recruit Smart insiders.


“We have very tight controls on our operations, any breach of our security would have triggered an alarm.”


Isberto also said he was not familiar with the method described by Lacson as to how the ISAFP had purportedly “split,” rerouted to Doble’s phone (a Nokia 3600), and digitally recorded the signal capturing the conversation between Ms Arroyo and Garcillano.
“I don’t know if splitting the signal is even possible,” he said.


No comment


“We couldn’t do it even if we wanted to,” Isberto said in a separate interview. “Up to now, I cannot understand how we were supposed to have played a role in the wiretapping.”


The National Telecommunications Commission also declined to comment on the matter, saying the service providers are the ones who have the network expertise to say whether wiretapping is possible.


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