“Hello madam, how can I help you?” If you live in South East Asia, the chances are that you have been greeted in this way by a friendly Philippines accent while calling a bank or large service provider.

The Philippines is the world-leader in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), with excellent English, an upbeat culture and longstanding expertise in this field helping them generate USD$22.9 billion in 2016 alone.

Now the nation wants to apply that same concept to one of its weak spots – cybersecurity. The country has suffered from a series of well-documented hacks over the past few years, including all biometric data held by the passports agency, and enough is enough. As Acting Secretary of the Department of ICT, Eliseo Rio Jr. tells GovInsider, the nation wants private sector firms to bring their expertise to the nation and take over this vital task.

Robust cybersecurity

“We have to agree that the Philippines has very little experience, as of now, on the practice of cybersecurity,” Rio says. To counter this gap, the Department is outsourcing its cybersecurity wholesale, first as a government-to-government arrangement and then to an experienced private sector supplier. “Our first years – maybe our first three or five years – we are going to outsource our cybersecurity to well-known companies that has the experience – countries like Israel or United States to outsource first for the initial part,” he says.

A pilot is being set up by the end of this year, which will be fully implemented in 2019. According to a tender document, published in May this year, the Philippines is hiring a company to detect, report and respond to attacks as well as actively deter threats. The tender includes the implementation of a Cyber Threat Intelligence Platform, protection and monitoring tools as well as implementation of AI and machine learning capabilities to track and analyse threats. The approved budget for the tender is set at 512 million Pesos (US$9.7 million).

In time, the nation hopes this arrangement will enable it to build the necessary skills to defend its key infrastructure. “It’s important to have the first few years managed by somebody, an expert who can also teach us on how to really, really be protective of our cybersecurity,” he adds.

ASEAN has become an increasing target for cyber attacks, so a coordinated response is vital, he adds. “Our nation, we really depend on the strength of cybersecurity of the neighbours,” he explains. Cybersecurity has no border.

Delaying ambitions

Philippines-watchers will have seen increasingly ambitious projects announced by government in the past few years, from a ‘cloud-first’ policy to AI-enabled public services. However, these schemes have been slower than anticipated, which Rio says is due to a lack of cybersecurity. “We are setting it but we would want a bit more robust cybersecurity before we really go into full application in our cloud services,” he explains of the cloud-first policy.

Rio firmly believes that AI and other advanced technologies will have transformative effects on the Philippines public service. Census and citizen polls, which usually take many months and man hours, can be automated, for example. “Almost all of our citizens have telephones and telephones you can text a question and they give us an answer.” Sensors and the internet of things can also be deployed to collect data, he adds.

But advanced technology implementation requires good connectivity. “You cannot have Internet Of Things if your internet is slow without proper connectivity,” he adds. Currently, Philippines has one of the slowest internet speeds in the region – due to a lack of cell towers across the country, Rio explains. The Philippines has an average 4G internet speed of 8.24 Mbps, reported CNN, which ranks 74th out of 77 countries. “We have only 16,000, a little more than 16,000 cell sites or cell towers now, and in fact, if you compare this with Vietnam, Vietnam has 70,000,” he adds.

The Department hopes to have 50,000 more cell towers up in the next 5 years. The government has implemented a common tower policy in where 3 telcos will now share towers – increasing competition. For increased connectivity across the country, the Department intends to work with electric cooperatives and utilise their unused fiber cables to connect remote villages to the internet. A satellite overlay will supplement areas which cannot be accessed by land, he adds. The budget for ICT infrastructure in the next year covering underground cables that will directly pass through one of the Philippines’ main islands, Luzon, is proposed at 2 billion Pesos (US$37.9 million), reports the government’s news agency.

Future proofing citizens

As the world shifts to industry 4.0, Philippines can be threatened by new technology such as AI. “We more or less have, we think, a threat, in a way, on our number two dollar earner,” Rio says. He is referring to those all-important outsourcing services, which are second in income generation only to overseas remittances sent from foreign workers overseas.

“You cannot hear if you are talking to a robot or talking to a human being, no?,” Rio says. To prevent jobs from being displaced by AI, the Department is working to incorporate the technology to augment the Philippines’ booming customer service sector. People’s ability to understand context and emotion will be combined with AI’s language capabilities. “That’s why we are using the artificial intelligence to bring out the message that started from the human brain,” he explains.

With a race towards a digital society, no one should be left behind, Rio says. The Department has established a Tech4Ed programme which combines reskilling people with helping them create a livelihood. “That’s why we are improving our infrastructure so that this Tech4Ed can be applied to even the most remotest areas,” Rio points out.

The programme will not provide basic tech skills and enable people to sell products such as handicrafts across the country and abroad, he explains. Some even use the platform to provide English tuition to kids from other countries, leveraging on the country’s English speaking population, says Rio.

The platform improves efficiency in the economy – fishermen in remote villages can use the platform to notify buyers on the morning’s catch directly, eliminating middlemen, he explains. “We are working on teaching people who are already connected how to sell the product directly to people who will buy this,” he adds.

Philippines has extensive plans to rehaul infrastructure, implement a cloud-first policy, and help secure jobs from disruption, but strong cybersecurity will be crucial at every step of the way. The country that is a leader in outsourced services now wants to use the same approach to build up its own cybersecurity.