By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter
and John Victor D. Ordoñez

SMARTMATIC SGO Group, the software contractor for this year’s elections, had experienced a “very serious” data breach that could compromise this year’s elections, a senator said on Thursday.

“While it is being investigated further by both the National Bureau of Investigation, Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Center, National Privacy Commission and other groups, we have to admit that a very serious breach occurred,” Senator Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” R. Marcos told a news briefing.

“It may not be technically hacking; however we feel that it compromises the processes and operations of Smartmatic in very serious means,” said the senator, who heads a joint congressional oversight committee on the automated election system.

The Manila Bulletin in January reported about the data breach, which prompted the investigation. Sensitive voter information might have been compromised after a group hacked the servers of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), downloading more than 60 gigabytes of data that could compromise the May 9 elections, it said.

“I am concerned that our election gatekeepers were lacking in ensuring the integrity of the May 9 elections,” Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said in a statement.

“The people’s right to an honest and credible election is enshrined in our Constitution and the Comelec is tasked to ensure that the results of the elections are not tainted with doubt and especially, that the conduct of the electoral exercise was not attended by anomalies.”

Mr. Sotto said the Comelec system did not appear to have been compromised, citing testimonies given at a closed-door hearing on Thursday.

Comelec spokesman James B. Jimenez told an online briefing streamed live on Facebook he was confident the breach would not affect the election outcome. “From the very beginning, Comelec is fully in-charge of the elections, even in this case when no hacking occurred.”

“We will definitely act on what was mentioned in the executive session,” Election Commissioner George M. Garcia told the same briefing in mixed English and Filipino, referring to the closed-door Senate hearing. “We will strengthen what we have now.”

Ms. Marcos noted that despite the denial about the hacking, the media was right. A Smartmatic employee had taken his laptop out, allowing a certain group to copy some data.

“We are a little worried about the degree, depth and breadth of the data that had been released and are still publicly available as far as I know,” she said, citing fears that a hacking syndicate might have been involved.

Mr. Sotto said the Senate would start an investigation into the security breaches.

“We will find out how deep and wide the neglect has taken,” he said. “We will invite election and technical experts to find out how serious the security breaches have been and what the impact will be on the May 9 election.”

Meanwhile, newly appointed Comelec Chairman Saidamen B. Pangarungan said they would fast-track the resolution of pending lawsuit.

“We have agreed to expedite all pending petitions here in the en banc and its divisions,” he told a news press briefing streamed live on the Comelec Facebook page.

Comelec has yet to decide on several cases seeking to disqualify ex-Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr.

The election body would also pursue the random ballot testing requested by election lawyer Romulo B. Macalintal, Mr. Garcia said.

Mr. Macalintal on Wednesday asked Comelec to examine randomly selected ballots in the presence of representatives of political parties and candidates so they can test the security of the printing process. He also asked Comelec to provide candidates and political parties an inventory of the ballots per province, city and municipality, and allow observers during the remaining printing process.

Meanwhile, Comelec would also no longer require candidates and political parties to apply for campaign permits to hold rallies and sorties, after the lockdown in many parts of the country was eased, Mr. Garcia said.

Senators earlier urged the election body to review impractical campaign guidelines.

Mr. Garcia said candidates would still be barred from shaking hands, hugging, kissing and going arm-in-arm with political supporters.

Also on Thursday, Comelec said it had reorganized its divisions after new appointments.

Mr. Pangarungan said the First Division would be composed of Commissioners Socorro B. Inting, Aimee P. Ferolino and Aimee Torrefranca-Neri. The Second Division will be composed of Marlon S. Casquejo, Rey E. Bulay and Mr. Garcia.