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Electronic fraud and Comelec preparedness

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The TV show I host, “Bawal Ang Pasaway,” will have as guests on Monday night Commission on Elections Chair Sixto Brillantes and Philippine Computer Society president Edmundo “Toti” Casiño. We taped the episode yesterday, and I wish the producers luck in distilling a two-hour conversation into a 20-25-minute episode. The guests’ views were polar opposites. But basically, two questions were tackled.

The first had to do with what kind of cheating to expect in the May elections. And Brillantes got the very lively discussion rolling by stating categorically that because we had an automated election system (AES), the only forms of cheating that could take place were the traditional ones like vote-buying and intimidation. No cheating at the polls itself, or in the canvassing, can take place.

This is, of course, the exact opposite of what the AES Watch has been warning about. This organization, launched in 2010 during the run-up to the national elections at the time, is now an informal coalition of 40 groups ranging from the social justice and religious types like the National Secretariat for Social Action-CBCP to the techie types like the Philippine Computer Society which Casiño now heads, with the academics in between (Faculty of Ateneo de Manila Department of Information Communications). The AES Watch has just recently launched a book titled “Was Your Vote Counted?” and subtitled “Unveiling the myths about Philippine automated elections” in tandem with the book of UP business administration professor Rene Azurin titled “Hacking Our Democracy” and subtitled “The Conspiracy to Electronically Control Philippine Elections.”

These books, in essence, consider a stand such as Brillantes’ (that with automation, no more poll fraud can take place) a myth that has to be debunked, and then proceed to show how in fact fraud can take place—through the PCOS (precinct count optical scan) machine, the CF (compact flash) card, and even the transmission process. If the AES Watch is to be believed, the kind of wholesale cheating (performed at the canvassing level) that was the bane of our traditional manual system of elections cannot hold a candle to the modern-day, computerized/electronic wholesale cheating.

And all these, specifically, because the Comelec (under Jose Melo then and under Brillantes now) ignored the safeguards that the election automation law had prescribed—digital signatures, write-once-only software features, UV rays, etc. Apparently, “a few bad guys who control the technology is all that is needed to pose a thousand times more harm in just one click of a finger on a machine that is devoid of security safeguards.”

As the “Publisher’s Notes and Acknowledgment” of the AES Watch book further states, “It is ironic that while electronic voting is on the way out in many highly developed countries because of their inability to verify votes or ensure the software has not been manipulated, a few developing countries like the Philippines are still mesmerized by the ‘magic’ of voting machines.”

There were two diametrically opposite points of view.

Brillantes’ main pitch—which sounds very convincing, and which echoes (or is echoed in) election lawyer Romy Macalintal’s opinion—is that all the election cases brought up, whether congressional or local, were all dismissed. And why? Because, said Brillantes, there was not one single instance where the ballots that were reviewed were different from the ballot images contained in the CF cards. Identical. So how can anyone say that the fraud was committed then? Moreover, continued Brillantes, for the forthcoming elections the Comelec has put in the safeguards that were left out in the last one, such as the UV scanners that can verify the authenticity of the ballot paper.

What about digital signatures? Ah, said Brillantes, the Supreme Court has already ruled that machine signatures will suffice, instead of the digital signatures required by the law.

Casiño wasn’t buying the argument. That the ballots in the boxes were identical to the images in the CF cards doesn’t mean that no cheating had taken place. For example, the CF cards could have been tampered with (remember, they are not write-once-read-many, and instructions could have been inserted on the CF cards, or the CF cards could have been switched) from the get-go, and the ballots in the ballot boxes could then have been replaced by the ones that would match the images. The possibilities are numerous.

But, said Brillantes, how come the electoral tribunals or the other judges dismissed all the cases? Casiño posited that they may have been clueless. As he explained off the air, it is possible that they were sincere, but if they were, they were sincerely wrong.

The second issue was that of the Comelec’s preparedness for the elections. Here, Brillantes again showed total confidence, and reiterated what he had told the media: that the Comelec is on schedule, is ready, and is in fact looking at postelection procedures.

Again, the AES Watch point of view was the total opposite. Apparently, it came up with a STAR (System Trustworthiness, Accountability, and Readiness) card that rated the Comelec on the state of its implementation, internal safeguards, training and voters education, and contingency planning. On a scale of 0 (fail) to 4 (pass), the Comelec received a score of 0.29.  At which point Brillantes questioned the basis for the scores, the credibility of the scorers, and of the AES Watch itself.

Where does the Reader stand?


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