Philippine Senator Alleges Espionage By Online Gambling Group

May 10, 2024
Anti-gambling senators in the Philippines have seized on intelligence alleging that employees of a raided online gambling operation had engaged in espionage and hacking government websites.

Anti-gambling senators in the Philippines have seized on intelligence alleging that employees of a raided online gambling operation had engaged in espionage and hacking government websites.

Senator Risa Hontiveros told a joint Senate committee hearing on Tuesday (May 7) that a foreign-facing online gambling operator (POGO) raided near Tarlac City in March has been implicated in spying on the Philippine government.

“I was very disturbed to hear that there is persuasive information from the intelligence community stating that this Bamban [township] complex has been used for surveillance activities, and that other reported high-profile cases of our own government’s websites being hacked are traceable to this complex,” she said in a mixture of English and Filipino.

“Are POGOs now being used to spy on us? Are we frying in our own oil?”

Citing the Presidential Anti-Organised Crime Commission, Hontiveros said the Philippines is one of the “fastest growing hotspots for scams anywhere in the world”, with “almost all large-scale investigations on cyberfraud and cyberscams globally having a nexus in the Philippines".

“If these scam hubs are so lucrative, it will not stop. This will just grow and grow, and before we know it, we will be faced with a threat to our national security like nothing we have ever seen before.”

Senators and other opponents of online gambling have previously accused the industry of presenting a national security risk, although largely based on violent crime such as kidnapping and murder linked to Chinese nationals who have worked in the industry.

However, Hontiveros’ comments on Tuesday are apparently the first to invoke evidence of espionage by POGO licensees or their illegal associates on Philippine soil.

This development therefore marks a potential game changer in the heated debate on POGOs and whether they should be banned outright, given the strategic shift of the Philippines away from Beijing and toward Washington under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

The March raid on the Tarlac facility, licensed to POGO licensee Zun Yuan Technology, led to the rescue of some 875 Filipinos and foreign nationals, some of whom reported torture. More than 400 of the foreigners were Chinese.

Police uncovered evidence of cyberscam operations at the 36-building compound, including cryptocurrency investment and love scams. Police also recovered firearms and ammunition, luxury amenities and vehicles, and accessed a bunker and tunnelling network allowing alternate escape routes.

Since the probe began, the Zun Yuan operation has also been linked to Alice Guo, the mayor of the local village of Bamban, an ethnic Chinese whose Philippine nationality is now under investigation.

Guo, who appeared before the Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, denied involvement in Zun Yuan operations, although she testified to previously owning 50 percent of the company that leased the land used by Zun Yuan.

Guo, questioned by anti-gambling senator Sherwin Gatchalian, was unable to provide documentary evidence of her birth or schooling in the Philippines, instead claiming she was born in a residence and home-schooled.

Guo also gave unclear testimony on her relationship to certain POGO-linked individuals sharing her family and middle name, often a sign of a blood relationship in Chinese name selection.

In the context of extensive immigration fraud affecting the POGO industry and the spectre of illegal surveillance activity, Hontiveros said Guo’s testimony only raised new questions.

“I have to confess I am most alarmed by how opaque Mayor Alice Guo’s answers have been, especially about her personal background.

“To those watching our hearing, there may be questions: Is the mayor a Filipino? There may be those questioning if she really has a stake in her town’s economic development, and if she really has a stake in our country’s national interest.”

The Senate investigation continues, compounding several developments in recent days that have heaped pressure on the POGO segment, including tighter labour checks and UN concern over the proliferation of cybercrime in the Philippines.

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