Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 February 2013


As I write this, I have just finished taping an interview with James Jimenez of the Commission on Elections and Juana Change (aka Mae Paner) of the Anti-Epal Movement, which exuded good humor and bonhomie. Which is a rarity, not where Juana, but where the Comelec, is concerned. But for once, the Comelec seems to have done something right; whether or not it has ridden on the coattails of a movement that has captured the public imagination and has made politicians think twice about undertaking their usual campaign shenanigans, it doesn’t matter.  And therefore the Comelec is to be congratulated, even as the Anti-Epal Movement, led among others by Vince Lazatin, has demonstrated what people power can do. I sincerely hope that the next target will be political dynasties.

But one must, albeit reluctantly, point out that keeping the “trapo”  in line with respect to campaign posters and other materials is, in the context of elections, like concentrating on a couple of trees while ignoring that the entire forest is catching fire. By the entire forest catching fire, I mean the increasing possibility that our automated election system (AES) is about to implode.

My university colleague, Rene Azurin, has written—with absolute clarity, using terms that allow computer illiterates like me to understand—on various aspects of the topic, at least half a dozen times, in BusinessWorld. The Philippine IT community is almost unanimous in its opinion of what is wrong and what should be done about it, with several of its members going out of their way, as part of the AES Watch, to attend legislative hearings, not to mention bringing their case to the Supreme Court. But all have been ignored/rebuffed/stonewalled for their efforts, just as former Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman was (except that Gus, the only IT-savvy commissioner, was also kicked out of the poll body, as the Reader will recall).

Is it a case of the above personages generating their own excitement, and then panicking?  One doubts it. These people are all responsible professionals/academics who have no axes to grind, no ulterior motives. Just love of country.

So exactly what are they worried about? For one, there is the matter of the source code, the computer program which contains the complete set of instructions, arranged in a logical sequence, that the machine (in this case, the PCOS) is to follow in doing its job—i.e., read and count votes. A very important program, right? Which is why our automation law mandates that “an established international certification entity” certify it, “categorically stating that the AES, including its hardware and software components, is operating properly, securely, and accurately, in accordance with the provisions of this Act based, among others, on the following documented results:

“Once an AES technology is selected for implementation, the Commission shall promptly make the source code of that technology available and open to any interested political party or groups which may conduct their own review thereof.”

So what’s wrong? Well, folks, it seems Smartmatic (from whom the Comelec has just bought the machines we used in 2010) no longer has the license to use the source code and other software in its machines. It turns out that Smartmatic is really a johnny-come-lately with respect to experience with PCOS machines, because prior to 2010, its only experience was with touch-screen (DRE) systems.  The technology it used in 2010 was owned by Dominion Voting Systems, and Smartmatic was using it only under license—which is in direct violation of a Comelec bidding rule in 2010 that software cannot be subcontracted.

And this is only on top of the other problem with the source code: No one in the Philippines has been able to review it, whether in 2010 or now, to make sure that there are no malicious instructions which could change the results. Why is the review important? Because it will be the basis for the board of election inspectors in the precincts to determine whether or not the software in their machines had been tampered with.  No review, no way to check for tampering.

Then there is also the matter of the compact flash (CF) cards, of 2010 notoriety (when, five days before the elections, Smartmatic had to replace 76,000 CF cards after the PCOS machines had problems with them). That Smartmatic again won a negotiated contract to supply the CF cards this year is an insult, given what happened in 2010. But the real injury is that (again), the CF cards do not have the WORM (Write Once, Read Many) feature. Which means, folks, that they can be written on again and again, thus making them vulnerable to tampering (again).

In short: Accuracy, safeguards against cheating, and even transparency are compromised in the 2013 elections. In spite (or maybe because) of an additional P5-10 billion in expenses (the Comelec was given another P4 billion recently, if one recalls).

Will it at least be faster? Well, certainly, the 5-12 hours that used to be spent on precinct counting in manual voting will be saved. But hey, any savings in canvassing (where wholesale cheating takes place) time are actually in doubt: Only consider that in the 1998 manual elections, Joseph Estrada was proclaimed on May 29, and in the 2010 Smartmatic elections, Noynoy Aquino was proclaimed on June 9.

Can we save ourselves from disaster? Certainly, say the experts, there are solutions.  That is, if the Comelec can shake itself out of its hubris. But that’s for another column.