Carol Pagaduan-Araullo | AES – a Lemon?

Streetwise/Business World
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Technology has always been a double-bladed tool. In the right hands and wielded properly, it is like a magic wand that can make everyday living easier, work lighter, production faster and more efficient, etc. Used improperly and in the wrong hands, it could cut a swathe of death and destruction more efficiently and swifter than one can utter “hi-tech”.

That is why countless tests, quality control procedures, built-in safeguards, monitors, maintenance requirements, redundancy features, etc. go into all gizmos that are potentially life-threatening, be it a machine pistol, motorcycle, space shuttle, or nuclear plant.

Furthermore, society has seen it fit and prudent to ensure that the authority to operate these high-tech gizmos is restricted by law only to those properly trained and proven competent — technically, physically, mentally and in accord with the purposes of whatever entity is making use of these machines.

In brief, two things are imperative: (1) the quality or reliability of the machine which allows for near zero-tolerance of error, and (2) the competence of the operator.

Both are seriously in doubt with regard to the Automated Electoral System used in the May 10 elections.

Since election day, we have been swamped with an avalanche of complaints and reports of anomalies and electronic fraud — some backed up by hard evidence, others sounding like red herrings to divert and confuse the public mind. Still, the very nature of an automated count compels us not to easily set aside even those complaints that appear to have no clear proof or evidence.

It is noteworthy that in Germany, one of the most technically advanced countries, electronic voting has been constitutionally banned precisely because of the near impossibility of preventing anomalies from occurring.

We start with the premise that elections for government positions are of such crucial importance and are by nature part of the people’s sovereign power such that these cannot be entrusted to anyone but the people themselves, albeit through government. It follows that elections should not be contracted out to any private entity, much less a multinational corporation, whose allegiance to national interests can not be presumed.

In this instance, the Arroyo government, through the Commission on Elections, virtually abdicated its responsibility and duty to oversee the elections. It hired Smartmatic-TIM (for all intents and purposes a foreign business firm with Filipino partners only to comply with legal requirements) to design, set up and operate the automated 2010 elections. There is a clear case for questioning the constitutionality and political wisdom of such an arrangement.

Moreover both Comelec and Smartmatic ignored, bypassed and short-circuited the safeguards provided by law to ensure a fraud- and error-free automated elections.

To begin with, the source code (or the human-readable version of the computer programs running on the Precinct Count Optical Scan or PCOS and Consolidation and Canvassing System or CCS machines) was not allowed to be adequately inspected by independent IT experts as provided by law. This inspection could have ensured that the machines would be executing the correct steps in the appreciation, counting and canvassing of the votes.

Security features of the PCOS such as the ultra violet scanning of the special ballots were disabled allegedly due to a technical error in the ballot printing. Subsequently, Comelec provided P30 million worth of separate handheld uv scanners to check ballot authenticity but these were hardly used for one reason or the other.

Voters were not allowed to verify how their votes were read by the PCOS machine allegedly to save time. But they were made to wait hours on end in the disorganized clustered precincts where thousands of voters jam-packed schools and multi-purpose halls in the searing summer heat just to be able to cast their votes.

The distinct electronic signatures that would authenticate the election returns to be transmitted to distant servers for canvassing were not created by the Board of Election Inspectors who would be responsible for them but by Smartmatic thus opening up the possibility of fraudulent transmission.

One of Smartmatic’s biggest blunders discovered a week before election day was the wrongly configured software in the computer flash cards (CF cards) for all of the PCOS machines that caused errors in the reading of the ballot. Because the timetable for distributing the CF cards and conducting the final field testing of the machines was seriously set back, many machines ended up unused while others were rushed through testing. The wrongly configured cards were ordered destroyed instead of being strictly accounted for and placed under safekeeping for future audit. Some were recalled, reconfigured and recycled while others ended up simply unaccounted for.

PCOS machines broke down, failed to transmit or were waylaid by armed men. When electronic transmission failed, the CF cards were hand carried to the canvassing centers with unclear guidelines for ensuring their integrity. There were reports of cards falling into unauthorized hands just as scores of machines were discovered stockpiled in unauthorized places.

The machines for national canvassing have been shown to store the wrong data, e.g. a vastly inflated number of registered voters that Smartmatic attempts to explain away as a minor error in computation. It was also shown that the date and time of transmission of the election returns were inaccurate and therefore could not be used as a way to verify the correctness of the transmissions.

Comelec allowed all these violations and circumvention of the automation law as well as its contract with Smartmatic. It tried to minimize or cover up the impact of technical glitches, their own human gaffes as well as those of Smartmatic. Comelec in effect sabotaged the proper automation of the elections and severely undermined the integrity of the elections process and their results.

At this point, one cannot help but adjudge the AES as a hugely expensive high-tech product that is fast turning out to be a lemon. No less than an honest-to-goodness audit by an independent, expert body of unquestioned integrity can truly arrive at a credible assessment and a final accounting of the country’s much-ballyhooed first automated elections.

*Published in Business World
28-29 May 2010

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