No guarantees — Bautista

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

If it had come from anyone else, I would dismiss it as anti-government prattle. But it came from the new chairman of Comelec himself, Andres Bautista who gave us honest and frank answers. He had come to the Philippine STAR office to give us a briefing on the Smartmatic-PCOS automated voting system that will be upon us in months. In so many words, he told us there are no guarantees the system is fool-proof.

I expected him to defend the system that he had approved but it was disappointing. It did not convince us there was nothing to fear. Instead he gave me the impression he was as unsure as most of us were around the table. We will be going through an election in which “anything goes.” He gave some horrifying examples. One of them was about issuing a receipt to the voter. “But what if the voter refuses the receipt because it is not the candidate he voted for?” he asked. “Imagine the chaos!”

A great part of the discussions was about Comelec’s spending for the Smartmatic machines. The electoral body was accused of favoring Smartmatic giving it billions of pesos on contracts. The scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money was an eye-opener. Smartmatic held Comelec hostage when it did not participate in the bidding to refurbish the 82,000 PCOS machines for P3 billion upon such flimsy ground that the project could not be completed by February 2016, the deadline set by Comelec. Thus, Comelec was forced to lease from, who else, but Smartmatic 94,000 PCOS machines for P10 billion or a net difference of P7 billion had it merely refurbished the 82,000 PCOS.

Still bad as it is, money (and to whom it went) was not the main issue. We were wrestling with a more crucial point and that was whether we should use the machines again given the questions in 2010 and 2013 that have been unanimously condemned by concerned citizens and IT experts as flawed. What we had were failed elections but there was nothing we could do about it when the winners were declared suspiciously and hurriedly even before the votes were counted completely.

 I decided to pursue two questions to Chairman Bautista just to make sure about the impression he gave that he could give no guarantees to holding fair and free elections in 2016.

I texted him two questions: The first was what guarantee can you give that the law on automated electoral system will be followed when it uses the non-mandatory word of ‘may’ instead of ‘shall’ to prefix its rules? The second was what guarantee can you give that the computer will not be hacked or tampered with?

On the first question, his texted answer was: “Even if the automation law uses the word ‘may’ we will endeavor to follow and implement the safeguards provided by law. I do not think anyone, not even developed countries, can provide a 100% guarantee against hacking.”

On the second question, he replied: “OMR machines are stand alone and operate on a virtual private network, which means they cannot be accessed for hacking purposes. Also OMRs are protected by 256 bit encryption (as opposed to 128 bit in the older model).

Finally, the reporting system of election results involves multiple copies of the results being sent to multiple recipients at the same time. This makes it impossible to manipulate results without having it discovered right away. Questionable results reports, if any, are quarantined for further investigation.”

Not satisfied with Bautista’s answers I sought the opinion of IT experts. Here’s one from Edmundo Casino, a computer science professor and past president of the Philippine Computer Society.

“OMR protected by (128?) or 256-bit encryption is just one measure of security. It doesn’t guarantee it came from the official source, i.e. precinct.  It can be decrypted by anyone who has access to this, in this case, Smartmatic and Comelec.  BEIs cannot authenticate the transmitted data came from them since they have no control on its decryption.

System logs, a printout, for audit purposes showing IP addresses, system date and time of transmission, ballot counters and all other relevant information of PCOS machines are not provided or not readily available for review and question. If these are submitted long after they have been requested it raises the integrity and accuracy of the logs.

REALTIME posting of results in the official website to match printout of the results from the PCOS machines is another measure to attest the accuracy and transparency of the transmitted results. 

In 2010 it was noted to have had a blackout of updating for 2 hours after midnight of which thereafter Noynoy was proclaimed winner with a lead of 5 million votes.  But prior to the blackout of results on the website, Noynoy’s lead of 1.8 million was narrowed to 1.4 million in 30 minutes and then a blackout of results ensued. 

In 2013, the 4th canvass to the 18th canvass posted on Rappler.com’s webpage picking up from the Transparency Server showed the 60-30-10 pattern which later on was reduced, then added, then adjusted to God knows what the hell is the real score.

On the other hand, TAPAT system is designed and developed to run making such gaps known and transparent on demand by all stakeholders, plus electronic signing by the BEI.  PCOS failed in doing all these previously in 2010 and 2013 and likely in 2016. The (128) or 256-bit encryption was and is the same lame excuse Smartmatic has been brandishing all along in 2010 and 2013 to mislead (fool) the unknowing public.”

Rene Azurin, another IT expert, said, “Anyone with root access can change the logs and no one would be the wiser… manipulation of results can be done by outsiders changing the configuration of the rewritable CF cards or pre-marking the ballots… more sophisticated methods involve transmitting fabricated results from PCOS machines other than precinct machines and by introducing malicious codes into the PCOS machines and canvassing servers.”

Given this difference of opinion between Chairman Andy Bautista and IT experts, what other conclusion can there be? There are simply no guarantees that the 2016 elections will be fraud-free or hack-free. So why are we continuing to spend billions on an automated voting system? And if there are no guarantees the elections can be fair and free, why are we having elections at all?

Tomorrow, I shall write on the relation between constitutional reform and the suspicious insistence of the Aquino government to continue with the Smartmatic-PCOS elections 2016. 

Filipinos should do everything in their power to stop it now, not later.
















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