On the brink of a precipice

Strategic Perspective
René B. Azurin

Posted on February 21, 2013

OUR DEMOCRACY teeters on the brink of a precipice. Blame that on Commission on Elections chairman Sixto Brillantes, Jr., his complicit fellow commissioners, and automation project director Jose Tolentino, Jr. Lawyers all, it seems that they believe that their power to ignore provisions of our poll automation law (RA 9369) cannot be questioned. They are wrong of course, and they will doubtless be taken down eventually for such arrogance. Meanwhile, however, they will wreck Comelec, possibly squash permanently whatever aspirations the Filipino people might have for honest elections, and push Philippine democracy off the edge and into an abyss.

Last Monday, the multi-sector election watchdog group AES Watch presented (in a public forum at the University of the Philippines) its latest assessment of Comelec’s preparations for the May 2013 automated polls. Security, trustworthiness, accountability, and reliability of the automated election system to be used were the main areas of concern. The assessment rated 27 items related to system set-up, internal security, personnel training and voters’ education, and contingency planning. The ratings were the collective evaluation of a committee consisting of IT [Information Technology] experts in programming and security, academics in the various disciplines of mathematics, business management, public administration, and social sciences, and representatives of concerned citizens groups who were involved in monitoring the preparation and implementation of poll automation from 2009 to the present day. Each item rated was given a mark of "0" for "Fail," "1" for "Danger," "2" for "Warning", "3" for "Qualified Pass," or "4" for "Pass."

What should be the most crucially important of the 27 items rated are "Source Code Review" and "Secured Electronic Transmission." Both of these items were graded "0" or "Fail" by the rating committee.

Source code is the set of instructions -- written by a programmer -- that dictates how the voting and counting machines will appreciate the ballots and then count and tally them. AES Watch marked this as "Fail" because "Comelec continues to deny access to the source code for review by interested political parties and groups, a right granted under RA 9369. It had closed the doors to further public scrutiny of the automated election system and Comelec’s preparations for the Midterm Elections. The lack of proper certification and review raises the question whether the automated election system will operate properly, securely, and accurately."

Source code review is critical because it is the only way that the public at large and the concerned political parties can assure themselves that the voting and counting machines will appreciate the ballots properly and count the votes accurately. It is akin to having the watchers of political candidates look over the shoulders of the ballot readers as the ballots are being read and tallied in manual elections. If Comelec does not make the source code available for examination, it is as if no one is permitted to watch the counting process and all candidates are simply forced to accept whatever results are announced. The entire counting process is non-transparent except to a select group of Smartmatic and Comelec officials. So who’d know -- and who’d be willing to accept -- that the results announced are true reflections of the voters’ choices? Who’d know if there was any electronic dagdag-bawas [adding-subtracting] or wholesale election rigging? Without public counting, how can any election be claimed to be credible?

The item "Secured Electronic Transmission" refers to the process of ensuring that all transmissions of election results from precinct machines to national canvassing servers are authentic. This was also graded as "Fail." Said AES Watch, "Comelec claims that a virtual private network (VPN) will be used for the 2013 Midterm Elections… [but] the use of the VPN has not been demonstrated… (and) VPN was not used in the mock elections conducted last February 2, 2013." Furthermore, "RA 9369 requires that the election reports [election returns and certificates of canvass] be digitally signed as a security measure… [but] the election reports in 2010 were not digitally signed… [and] the Forensics Team that examined the PCOS after the elections did not find any evidence of digital signing in the PCOS machines." The graders noted that, "To date, while Comelec claims that digital signing will be implemented, the digital signing of election reports has not been demonstrated."

Ensuring the security of transmitted election results requires the implementation of unique individual digital signatures for each authorized election official -- meaning, every member of the various Boards of Election Inspectors and the Boards of Canvassers -- because it is the most effective way of verifying and validating that a specific authorized election official sent a particular election return, that the return was sent at a specific time, and that the return was not altered in any way during transmission. So-called "machine digital signatures" will not cut it. To achieve its security function, what is called the private key of each election official should be known only to the individual concerned. No Smartmatic, Comelec, or other person should be privy to the private key of any election official; otherwise, he/she will be able to transmit seemingly authentic returns with bogus figures from anonymous machines.

The average of all the ratings was 0.29. The rating committee’s overall verdict: FAILURE. According to AES Watch, the situation is worse now than it was in the run-up to the 2010 polls.

The AES Watch presentation was done by former Philippine Computer Society president Nelson Celis, Ateneo University computer science professor Dr. Pablo Manalastas, IT industry pioneer and former Comelec commissioner Gus Lagman, former Philippine Electronic and Telecommunications Federation president Maricor Akol, and directors Evita Jimenez and Prof. Bobby Tuazon of the policy group CenPEG.

In concluding the poll preparation assessment exercise, the 40 civic, academic, and industry groups that make up the AES Watch coalition expressed their concerns thus: "The same problems of ballot rejections, transmission failures, inaccuracy of the vote count, Election Returns and Certificates of Canvass not digitally signed as required by law, and many other problems and issues observed in the May 10, 2010 National and Local Elections unfolded during the mock elections conducted before the Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms at the House of Representatives last July 24-25, 2012 and in 10 selected cities/municipalities last Feb. 2, 2013. The same problems and issues, regarded by Comelec as minor glitches, are highly likely to resurface during the midterm elections which could result in inaccurate vote counts and tallies and disenfranchisement of voters."

The question is then asked: "Is the repeated failure to comply with the automation law and the fixation on using the defective Smartmatic-provided system setting the stage for a possible election failure? If this is so, Comelec has nobody to blame but itself for what are potentially impeachable offenses." Actually, by forcing through the May 13, 2013 elections without remedying clear violations of our poll automation law, Comelec opens wide the door to an avalanche of post-election protests -- filed naturally by those declared losers -- that can seek, legitimately, to invalidate the entire election. These declared losers will refuse to accept unverifiable results and those declared winners will undoubtedly refuse to give up what they might have paid a bundle to win. Seriously, that looks like a perfect recipe for post-election chaos. The precipice looks deep.

A final question has to be raised: Are all the failures and faults of Comelec mere components of a dastardly plot by a shadowy cabal to electronically control Philippine elections?