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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why did Comelec still insist on buying those used PCOS machines when it surely must have been aware of the intense wrangling between Smartmatic and Dominion, the owner of the AES technology? Why did Comelec allow our country’s mid-term elections to be held hostage by the mutual suits between them?




If you readers are rather fed up reading day in and day out about the shortcomings of Comelec for the mid-term elections, please stretch your patience a little longer---for neither are these imaginary or false. And how they are resolved or left unattended could affect the coming mid-term elections and therefore the stability of our democracy.

Comelec  Chair Sixto Brillantes has been lately commenting on everything about the coming elections, except to reassure us on the most vital issue---the credibility of the automated election system (AES). He has been issuing anti-epal warnings to candidates and dissecting do’s and don’t’s in campaigning (e.g., giving away lechon or pancit could constitute vote-buying), which are not bad. But what we citizens want him to concentrate on is to ensure that the May elections would be free and honest and our votes counted correctly---but he’s not doing enough to reassure us.  In fact, every time he talks about the AES and makes light of missing features, the more disturbed and worried we citizens are.

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Last Feb. 12 Comelec jubilantly released the report of its Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) certifying that the AES, “as submitted, with full adoption of the recommended compensating controls, can operate properly, securely and accurately be used (by all parties concerned) in the May 13, 2013 National and Local Elections.” The TEC also resolved that in compliance with requirements of the AES Law, RA 9369, the AES source code, as submitted and reviewed, should be kept in escrow with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

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The problem is that both the approval by the TEC of the AES system for May and the “successful completion of a source code review” were based on the “Final Certification Test Report” of the Colorado-based SLI Global Solutions, Inc. (formerly Systest Labs, Inc.), the independent third-party agency tasked to conduct this review. But as Filipino IT experts have pointed out, the source code reviewed by SLI appears to be the 2011 PCOS code designed for the cancelled 2011 ARMM elections which were regional in nature. In fact the TEC approval report points out that even this old code is still not deposited in the BSP, as RA 9369 provides, but still held in escrow with SLI Global.

There is still no source code for the 2013 elections---and this violates RA 9369 that decrees that this code should be opened for review 90 days before the elections. That deadline is way past already.  

In fact, Chair Brillantes, in an interview by reporter RG Cruz for ABS-CBN News last Feb. 13, admitted that the positive review by TEC “came with reservations because of the absence of a source code review.”

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The source code is a most vital component of the AES because it contains the human-readable instructions for how the PCOS machines will function on election day;  but until now it’s missing in action, still caught in the crossfire of law suits between Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic, the supplier of the PCOS machines.

Now, however, buoyed up by the favorable TEC review of the AES, Brillantes alarmingly insists that the automated elections will proceed “whether the source code is there or not.” He’s quoted as saying, “ ‘di na namin problema ang source code. We can use the TEC report as justification na ‘di magiging significant ang source code.”

At the last JCOC hearing on Feb. 6, before Congress adjourned, Brillantes, pressed by legislators and IT professionals critical of the multi-defect first mock elections, said he’s amenable to a second test run as a confidence-building measure. But now, with this questionable TEC review, he now says there’s no need for mock elections---and also shuts the door on manual voting which he had earlier left ajar.

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Let’s listen to what the IT professionals say, as quoted by RG Cruz, about the critical role of the source code review.  From Gus Lagman, founder of the STI Colleges: “We don’t know if the machine read our ballot and counted the votes correctly. We don’t see how they’re done. Not like the manual counting in front of the public. So the only way we can be confident that the results are correct is if we can review the source code.”

Fellow IT professional Lito Averia says, “If you can’t trust the source code, you can’t trust what’s installed in the machines. Questionable accuracy and integrity of the system.”

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In that same ABS-CBN interview, however, Brillantes admitted something most interesting about the May 2010 elections---which may be the key to all the woes of the past elections and which unscrupulous elements may have quickly manipulated to get the results they wanted.  

The poll chief was quoted as saying, “Nu’ng 2010 walang nakakita ng source code, nobody knew what’s in the Central Bank source code.” But this was because, as Smartmatic pointed out in its incredibly frank lawsuit vs. Dominion, the latter failed to submit this source code to Smartmatic because they were apparently already quarrelling about certain aspects of the AES. This was why, despite the Supreme Court’s order for Smartmatic to produce this code for the IT experts’ examination, it couldn’t deliver---wala pala sa kanila.

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Smartmatic’s chief executive Cesar Flores also pointed out in RG Cruz’s interview that during a test of the AES conducted shortly before the May 2010 elections, Comelec and Smartmatic discovered a defect in the licensed technology from Dominion---“(its) software failed to correctly read and record the paper ballot.”

Flores pointed out that this relates to the nightmare problem subsequently encountered, “where the software provided by Dominion was producing inaccurate results of the testing and sealing ballots.” Flores said this discovery prompted Smartmatic “to redeploy a new set of CF cards with the correct configuration” all across this island nation, in the process spending “millions of dollars to save the automated elections in the Philippines.” He said his firm has been requesting Dominion to reimburse the costs incurred due to the defect in its technology.

Actually that claimed re-deployment of new CF cards in the weekend before the May 10, 2010 elections could only have been token, as it was humanly impossible to change all of them in the 76,000 clustered precincts across our many islands and the remote areas.

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In March 2012, said RG Cruz’s article, Smartmatic presented Comelec’s requested enhancements and modifications to Dominion, but the latter notified Smartmatic that it would not complete those requests “unless Smartmatic further agreed to waive any and all claims it may have against Dominion.”  Flores claimed that Dominion tried to keep his company “hostage” and force it to “waive our claims from the CF card rescue operation.” Smartmatic, he insisted, “could not allow this attempt by Dominion to hijack the elections in the Philippines.”  Hence the suit vs. Dominion later, to which it responded with a counter-suit.

What’s evident in all these claims is that everything went bad with the May 2010 elections, prompting various observers (among them the Star’s legal columnist, Atty. Jose Sison) to question its results, beginning with the election of the country’s top officials, and tie up this uncertainty to the stubborn insistence of Comelec now to patronize the same firm that botched up those 2010 elections. 

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Interestingly, Dominion, in its counter-complaint, said that on June 14, 2012, it advised through letter SmartmaticFlores that “due to the termination of the License Agreement between them (by Dominion), Smartmatic was no longer licensed to provide those 81,000 machines to Comelec, and that Dominion had no obligation to undertake the upgrades.”

Smartmatic ‘s side is that even though this license agreement was terminated by Dominion, the latter was still legally obliged to provide all support to this “perpetual license that Comelec finally purchased two months before the alleged termination of the licensing agreement.”

My question is, surely, Comelec must have known of the messy relations between Smartmatic, the owner of the PCOS machines, and Dominion, which is the technology owner. Why in the hell did Comelec still insist on buying those old defective PCOS machines, so that now the country’s elections are being held hostage between the two rival firms?



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