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On source codes

All these talk about source codes and the 2013 polls led me to conclude how totally information technology or IT-illiterate this writer is. I can’t even maximize the use of my iPhone and Blackberry. How can I be expected to understand source codes?

We already know that the Commission on Election (Comelec) has this contract with Smartmatic and Total Information Management for the computerization of the 2013 elections, in a bid to replicate the huge success realized during the first computerized polls in 2010.

Just recently, there was this dispute during a Senate hearing involving officials of Smartmatic led by Cesar Flores and critics after the latter warned that a business dispute in the US between Smartmatic and its licensing company Dominion Voting Systems International Corp. could ruin the 2013 polls.

Smartmatic supplied the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines for the automated election system (AES) used during the 2010 polls but the software is supplied by Dominion under a licensing agreement.

It appears Smartmatic sued Dominion in a Florida court after the latter had terminated the contract. The case is still pending but this resulted in local critics of Smartmatic and the AES to ask the Supreme Court to reverse its June 23 ruling approving Comelec’s contract with Smartmatic-TIM. The SC last Oct. 23 threw out their case and upheld with finality the validity of the Comelec’s contract to buy the machines, but the critics looked for another forum and one group – AES Watch – asked Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago to reconvene the joint congressional oversight committee on the AES to investigate the matter.

Let’s go back to source codes.

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According to the critics, the case in the US has unearthed that first, no source code for the 2010 elections was ever deposited by Smartmatic with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) as required under the law, and that second, we probably would be at the mercy of hackers and computer glitches come election day because the software or technology that runs these machines belongs to Dominion with which Comelec’s private partner has had a falling out.

“A source code refers to the “before” versions of a computer program that is compiled before it is ready to run in a computer. The source code consists of the programming statements that are created by a programmer with a text editor or a visual programming tool and then saved in a file. For example, a programmer using the C language types in a desired sequence of C language statements using a text editor and then saves them as a named file. This file is said to contain the source code. It is now ready to be compiled with a C compiler and the resulting output, the compiled file, is often referred to as object code. The object code file contains a sequence of instructions that the processor can understand but that is difficult for a human to read or modify. For this reason and because even debugged programs often need some later enhancement, the source code is the most permanent form of the program. “(http://searchsoa.techtarget.com/definition/source-code)

The same source revealed that “when you purchase or receive operating system or application software, it is usually in the form of compiled object code and the source code is not included. Proprietary software vendors usually don’t want you to try to improve their code since this may create additional service costs for them. Lately, there is a movement to develop software (Linux is an example) that is open to further improvement and here the source code is provided.”

According to Smartmatic’s Flores, the licensing agreement with Dominion provides permission for the use of the latter’s software in the election modernization project in the Philippines and solely for the project, Smartmatic was granted the right to modify the source code and IP included in the license technology provided that Dominion is notified in writing among others.

Critics claim Smartmatic never got the source code for the 2010 elections and failed to deposit it with the BSP.

The licensing agreement between Smartmatic and Dominion includes a provision that obligates the latter to place all its source codes in escrow, according to Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez. This is a safety clause that allows Smartmatic to take the codes out of escrow and use them to fix any problems arising from Dominion’s violation of their licensing agreement, if any.

But no less than Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes has assured the public that the dispute is business-related and should not be of any concern to us because it does not affect the technological aspect of the contract with Smartmatic.

Comelec’s Jimenez has also confirmed that the source code was submitted by Smartmatic and the Comelec to a third party for review. After the review was completed, the source code was used to create a final version of the software that was used in the 2010 elections. Jimenez refers to this as the “trusted build.”

It appears that the dispute between Smartmatic and Dominion involves failure of the latter as provided for under a 2009 expanded contract to deposit in the US an additional copy of the same source code for escrow, which is the norm in licensing agreements in the IT industry.

In short, Smartmatic was in possession of the source code and had turned it over to the BSP; what it was suing Dominion for was its failure to deliver an additional copy.

In fact, former Comelec commissioner Gus Lagman lashed out at the Comelec for its supposed bias against locals in awarding a P70 million contract to SysTest Labs to perform the mandatory review instead of making the source code “available for review by Filipino IT professionals.”

Jimenez recalled that the Comelec even invited the very same groups now claiming the non-existence of the source code to examine it in the presence of representatives from Smartmatic and Dominion. “Unfortunately, the review process was boycotted by the very same people who now claim that the code never actually existed,” he said.

The SC said in its April 2011 ruling that the Comelec had valid reasons to impose restrictive conditions on the review of the source code – among them non-disclosure agreements, body searches, and a prohibition on CenPEG and IT groups from copying or taking home the source code – because this software did not belong to the poll watchdog but “remains to be Smartmatic’s private property.” Smartmatic had not ceded its ownership right to the Comelec, added the SC, because the contract only provided for “guarded disclosure of the source code.”

To prove that the source code is safely deposited with the BSP, Jimenez said this was even used to improve and enhance the automated election system technology intended for the 2011 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The impact of the US case involving Smartmatic and Dominion, officials explained, is akin to the global legal battle between Apple and Samsung over the former’s charges that the latter had infringed on the design and utility patents of the iPhone and iPad in its devices like the Samsung Epic 4G, Captivate, Galaxy S II, Indulge and Vibrant. There has been no disruption of service among owners of Samsung smartfones and tablets even after an American jury had ordered Samsung to pay $1 billion in damages for its copyright or IPR violations.

The Comelec has decided to use the same system used in 2010 for next year’s polls. No less than the Comelec chairman has said that the SC has already upheld the contract with Smartmatic and that the legal dispute between Smartmatic and Dominion would not affect preparations for next year’s elections. So let’s give it a rest guys.

For comments, e-mail at philstarhiddenagenda@yahoo.com.

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