May 27, 2010

AES – a lemon?

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

May 20, 2010

Wistful thinking

AFP Chief Gen. Delfin Bangit’s admission that the AFP will not be able to meet de facto President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's 2010 deadline to defeat the New People's Army (NPA) comes as no surprise. The military claims of success in its counterinsurgency campaigns have been belied by independent media reports of the NPA’s tactical offensives resulting in firearms seized and AFP troops captured, killed or wounded. Moreover, the underlying socio-economic causes of the longest-running armed conflict in the Southeast Asian region to date make a military solution untenable ab initio as any student of history knows.

Mr. Bangit subsequently backpedals and attempts two explanations for the military’s admitted failure.

First, he says that the insurgency is not just a military problem, its roots being poverty and lack of government services, ergo a military solution cannot be the only solution. Second, he says that the military did such a good job securing the May 10 polls it did so at the expense of its drive to wipe out insurgency by June 30, the end of Mrs. Arroyo’s term of office.

Both reasons won't wash. These (poll duties and non-military solution) were elements known to the counterinsurgency planners long ago. Is he saying these were not factored in by Mrs. Arroyo when she gave the orders and by the AFP when it mapped out its implementing and operational plans?

What was the whole point in the AFP's crowing until last week that they were well on their way to meeting the deadline? Clearly the military and the Arroyo regime have been pulling our legs all along. Or so they thought.

But by saying they cannot do it alone, Mr. Bangit is once again pointing the accusing finger at the civilian component of the "counter-insurgency plan". While there is a lot of truth to Mr. Bangit's claim that civilian government agencies are not performing their function of fostering the socio-economic development of NPA-controlled or influenced areas, he does so in an attempt to cover up, as all his predecessors have done, the fact that military operations have failed dismally to achieve their objective of "rendering inconsequential", much less decimating the NPA.

Rather, the gross human rights violations committed by the AFP and paramilitary forces under its supervision, as well as the injustices and iniquities committed by the government against the people, have only served to infuriate and drive more and more people to the mountains to fight alongside the NPA or render them support.

The case of the Morong 43 (forty three health professionals and community health workers arrested en mass while allegedly training to make explosives) is only the latest example of the gross abuse of authority and human rights violations by the military, apparently with the go signal of Malacañang, with the AFP flagrantly defying even the orders of the courts and the human rights commission.

After the illegal arrest of the 43 health workers, the AFP bragged that the catch had crippled the NPA in the whole island of Luzon. With the arrest, they said the NPA had lost its capability to launch attacks against the AFP. Shortly after, the military lost several lives and firearms in Mindoro and Rizal provinces as a result of NPA ambuscades.

It seems it has only itself to blame for issuing statements that aim to deceive the public, but instead lull its own troops into complacency. This is a microcosm of what is happening on the national scale. From the looks of it, the NPA are still very well entrenched and active in many parts of the country, belying AFP claims that it has destroyed scores of the NPA's guerrilla fronts.

The fact is the regime's National Internal Security Plan (NISP) was bound to fail from the start. It has as its main ingredient the Oplan Bantay-Laya (OBL), the military component of the NISP. Conceptually, it is no different from the failed counterinsurgency plans from Marcos' Oplan Katatagan to Aquino's Oplan Lambat-Bitag, Ramos' Oplan Mamayan and Estrada's Oplan Makabayan. They were all patterned after the failed US Vietnam War campaigns and what the US now calls "stability operations".

The inherent flaw in all these counter-insurgency plans, with Oplan Bantay Laya only its most monstrous mutant, is that they are basically anti-people. They are meant to quell resistance against social iniquities and injustice, and protect an oppressive and exploitative system.

What distinguishes OBL from its predecessors is the policy of employing military force to "neutralize" (read: assassinate) progressive leaders and activists in the urban areas, resulting in hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, all perpetrated with impunity, during Arroyo's nine-year rule. This cloak of impunity likewise covered and emboldened countless cases of abuses and human rights violations by state security forces nationwide.

Mr. Bangit's latest revelation that the military cannot defeat the NPA by itself is quite true. His stating it now, however, is a virtual indictment of the US backed-Arroyo regime under which he unquestioningly and loyally served.

Could it be an overture to the incoming administration of Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino? Despite the fact that Mr. Bangit is known as Mrs. Arroyo’s lapdog, his “non-partisanship” in the last elections --i.e. the AFP under Mr. Bangit did not undertake to perpetuate Mrs. Arroyo as president under various scenarios -- shows that he could still be useful in leading the government counterinsurgency drive.

After all, Mr. Aquino does not appear to be headed towards breaking new ground in so far as resolving the intractable and deeply-rooted armed conflicts in the land. Mr. Aquino, in a recent speech on his concept of a coherent National Security Policy, said that the key to success in counterinsurgency and attaining “peace” is by ensuring that government delivers adequate services to the people, government and the military is graft-and-corruption free and the latter gets all the support it needs to pursue the military effort.

Mr. Aquino will soon be confronted by two questions that will define his administration: (1) Will he prosecute Mrs. Arroyo and her henchmen for the human rights violations they committed under OBL? (2) Does he have what it takes to depart from this US-imposed and nurtured policy framework on counterinsurgency?

Can he and will he, once vested with full executive power, do what he could not as much as propose in his nine years as a legislator? #

*Published in Business World
21-22 May 2010

May 13, 2010

Elections post script

The main reason why the elections are largely considered to be a success is that it appears to have finally put to an end to the Arroyo era. The emergence of Sen. Noynoy Aquino and former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada as top presidential candidates, both having projected themselves as staunchly anti-Arroyo, has wiped away all erstwhile fears of de facto President Gloria Arroyo’s perpetuation in power via electoral fraud and even widespread failure of elections.

The weak third place finish of Sen. Manny Villar whose survey ratings started slipping down when he failed to effectively counter the “Villaroyo” charge (that he is the secret candidate of Mrs. Arroyo) reinforces this perception, as do the defeat of her chief loyalists former executive eecretary Ermita, former presidential legal counsel Gonzalez, former Justice secretary Devenadera, former House Speaker Nograles, former Armed Forces Chief Esperon and presidential gofer Mike Defensor etc. to a lesser degree.

Ironically many believe that clear proof of the 2010 elections being clean and honest is that the reported outcome conforms to survey results, as though elections are meant to validate survey results. In the same vein, some quarters (particularly in the Aquino camp) had earlier threatened to oppose and condemn elections as fraudulent should the results not tally with survey findings that showed their favored candidate leading the pack.

Regardless of proof of significant cheating that poll watchdogs may subsequently unearth that can throw doubt on the outcomes for certain national and local positions, most people accept the victory of Mr. Aquino as President-elect because it means that Mrs. Arroyo will be stepping down come June 30th.

The novelty of electronic-speed precinct counting, transmitting and canvass of votes has apparently all but swept away (or under the rug) all questions, doubts, uncertainties and potential loopholes for fraud using the Automated Electronic System (AES) chosen by the Elections Commission without resolving them convincingly or with finality.

Thus, while the random manual audit -- the closest thing to a verification of the correctness of the automated count -- has barely begun, few are inclined to question the results. Even most of the major losers, traditionally the most vociferous protesters, have conceded defeat to the frontrunners.

Notwithstanding the prevalent view and sentiments, it is still quite premature to conclude that the automated elections were a big success. Of late, reports are trickling in of irregularities that appear at first glance to be isolated, but could be significant if experienced in many areas.

The thing about technology is that the laws of nature, unlike the laws of human beings, are near absolute and unforgiving. A technical glitch, intended or not, cannot be concealed or papered over forever. Sooner or later, it manifests itself, albeit belatedly, and usually with a vengeance.

Needless to say, there is a need to undertake a complete and independent audit of the way that 2010 elections took place, starting with the automation system and the way everything else about the voting process was configured to that innovation rather than to ensuring that the entire exercise could be as democratic as possible. The chaotic proceedings in the crowded precincts, the long lines in the hot sun, the interminable wait to be allowed to vote – all conspired to disenfranchise voters on top of the ballot rejection and the missing names in the voters’ registry.

Nonetheless, elections were held nationally with failure declared only in a few areas. This despite all the blunders and mishaps which in reality indicated that we were on the brink of major systems failure just before election day itself.

This is a testament to the fortitude of the voters who persisted in exercising their right to vote despite tremendous odds and to the people’s overwhelming desire for change, even if only, for now, a mere change in administration. It is not a testament to the strength or integrity of the AES, not to mention the entire electoral system, nor the efficiency and credibility of the Comelec.

The prospect of a widespread failure of elections resulting in an unprecedented situation where there is no clear line of succession to Mrs. Arroyo was just unacceptable to the people. Too bad for the Arroyo clique, it was also unthinkable for the ruling classes, foreign big business, and the United States, the only Superpower with the biggest geopolitical and economic stakes in its former colony.

The explosion of rage and protest such a situation could unleash would be far too messy and threatening to the status quo. There was the likelihood of the political situation polarizing once more: the hated and isolated Arroyo regime versus the people, a united legal Opposition and all democratic forces including those of the Left.

But there would be no assurance that the momentum of the people’s uprising could be controlled to stop at ousting Mrs. Arroyo and ensconcing an Opposition leader, not even Mr. Aquino. In another “people power” uprising, a more radical, if not revolutionary agenda, will confront the country’s ruling elite and their foreign backers.

Be that as it may, the Noynoy Aquino presidency is upon us. What can the people expect?

As Pagbabago! People’s Movement for Change pointed out, “The first 100 days of the Aquino administration will be crucial. This period will reveal and set the tone on the priorities of the new government as well as demonstrate the intent, if not ability, of Aquino to address the injustices that our people have long been suffering.”

Having run on a platform and a campaign that offered no fundamental reforms, not to mention his class interests that run counter to social change, Mr. Aquino can hardly be expected to "rock the boat", so to speak, notwithstanding his promise of battling corruption and prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo and her cohorts.

It would be difficult to imagine him rising higher than his mother, President Cory Aquino, who in 1987 passed off the golden opportunity to institute radical reforms and prosecute the Marcos clique after proclaiming a "Freedom Constitution" that gave her wide latitude to do so.

Whatever Mr. Aquino’s interests and intentions, our people will continue to demand from government urgent as well as fundamental socio-economic reforms; at the same time, they will have to rely on their own organized strength to attain such change.

Like the laws of nature that are independent of human will, there are also laws of history that we may not alter at our whim.

It would be good for President-elect Aquino to keep in mind that an oppressed and downtrodden people will most certainly rise up to institute the change they truly need and deserve. #

*Published in Business World
14-15 May 2010

May 06, 2010


From the beginning, the question of whether automation will significantly reduce electoral fraud, or it will merely accelerate and open new opportunities for it, has been the subject of increasingly heated, albeit unresolved debate.

On one hand, many were willing to grant that elections automation would eliminate if not undercut fraud in the counting and canvassing of votes by its sheer efficiency and speed. It was claimed that the cheating mafia inside Comelec, candidates like Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who make phone calls to Comelec officials to ensure their victory, and the warlords who undertake wholesale “dagdag-bawas” at gunpoint would be stymied by the advances in technology.

Modernity was finally catching up with an antiquated elections system prone to all sorts of crass as well as sophisticated shenanigans designed to thwart the will of the people. Or so it was argued.

Instead we have witnessed one so-called glitch after another including major booboos like the failure to incorporate security markings into the ballots and test run the transmission system in place as well as certify ballot production tools, modems and canvassing servers that will consolidate all the election returns from the precincts.

Comelec and Smartmatic have characteristically pooh-poohed concerns raised then come up with and make do with slapdash solutions. As the level of anxiety and mistrust over the Automated Election System (AES) rose, Comelec resorted to branding critics as nay-sayers, creators of doomsday scenarios and even downright saboteurs who deserve to be slapped with penalties including jail terms. All said, the issues, problems and warnings raised were never squarely confronted, much less adequately addressed.

A week before Election Day, nearly everyone has been jarred to reality by the most recent failure of the PCOS machines to correctly count votes cast while undergoing final testing. Our worse fears have come to life anew: automation will fail miserably causing generalized confusion, disorder and disenfranchisement at the polling place; there will be automated fraud on top of good old-fashioned cheating; and worst of all, these conditions can pave the way for a failure-of-elections cum GMA hold-over, open-ended scenario.

Is this just a case of incompetent people in charge, Comelec officials who don’t know any better but pretend to by relying almost exclusively on the foreign company Smartmatic, who it turns out is using us as a guinea pig for this technology. (Engr. Ernesto R. del Rosario, resigned head of the Comelec Technical Working Group, pointed out that the AES is new not only to us but also to Smartmatic because this is the first time they are using the PCOS machines.)

Why has the Comelec persistently ignored warnings from independent information technology experts and citizen watchdogs? Instead it keeps trying to cover-up weaknesses and short-cuts in complete disregard of the automation law and procedural and technical standards and safeguards.

Certainly COMELEC Chair Melo and his lieutenants got their marching orders on how to prepare for and conduct the 2010 elections from Mrs. Arroyo herself. We submit that it is not only Comelec and Smartmatic who must be held to account. The buck stops at the doorstep of none other than de facto president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Under Mrs. Arroyo’s watch the Abalos Comelec oversaw the 2004 presidential elections marred by the “Hello Garci” fraud scandal. Mrs. Arroyo was proclaimed president in the wee hours of the morning under a dark cloud of doubt that massive cheating had taken place in her favor.

We were not surprised that instead of dismantling the syndicated fraud machinery in Comelec, Mrs. Arroyo appointed retired Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo to the Comelec chairmanship when Mr. Abalos was forced to resign over the ZTE-NBN scandal. (By the way, this scam was also covered up quite effectively by Mrs. Arroyo’s invoking “executive privilege” to suppress damning testimony; the Arroyo-packed Supreme Court upheld Malacañang’s position.)

But why Mr. Melo? He headed the Arroyo-created Commission on Extra-judicial Killings that got away with appearing to pillory the notorious Gen. Jovito Palparan and some purported rogue elements of the military but firewalled the GMA regime and its counter-insurgency program from any accountability. No one, not even Mr. Palparan, got to be investigated much less prosecuted. He eventually got installed as a party-list congressman and now has the gall to run for senator courtesy no doubt of the Commander-in-Chief who gushed about his achievements in her State-of-the-Nation address not too long ago.

Mr. Melo raised nary a whimper over this. He had done his job which was to deodorize the Arroyo regime and buy it time to appear to be doing something in earnest regarding its bloody human rights record after coming under fire from the international community.

Mrs. Arroyo is thus accountable for appointing an incompetent Comelec head and assembling other incompetent commissioners to complement him. She did this at a time when the historic, gigantic and complex shift from manual to automated elections is set to be implemented. At the minimum, Mrs. Arroyo is guilty of the same incompetence, by virtue of command responsibility.

On the other hand, one can accuse Mrs. Arroyo of many things but hardly incompetence. She has been very competent getting way with all sorts of corrupt deals; trampling national sovereignty by letting US military forces play “war games”all over the country and maintain a permanent presence to boot; wringing the people dry using the hiked RVAT; allowing oil, power and water monopolies to manipulate prices at will; borrowing like there was no tomorrow; imposing emergency rule to clamp down on legitimate dissent; declaring martial law (in a part of the country) to demonstrate her will to go after private warlord armies that she had coddled in the first place; the list goes on ad nauseam.

Malacañang is cultivating the impression that it has nothing to do with the conduct of the 2010 elections, that it is just as surprised and worried as everyone else that things are going badly in terms of preparations and that it is quite helpless in this regard.

In truth, the ground has been set and diabolical schemes are in place to subvert the electoral process for either massive fraud or failure of elections, Mrs. Arroyo clearly aiming to benefit from either case.

The people must remain vigilant. ###

*Published in Business World
7-8 May 2010