May 09, 2013

AES unmasked

The mystique of technology, especially high tech or cutting-edge technology, as the silver bullet that would slay the monster of the notoriously dirty, violent and fraud-ridden elections in the Philippine setting has lost much of its allure after the 2010 presidential polls.

While the intricacies of the AES are unfathomable to most everyone except the information technology (IT) experts, the local IT community and election watchdog groups such as AESWATCH and Kontradaya have over time effectively unmasked the flaws, infirmities and errors in its design and operationalization to sufficiently cast doubt on the integrity of the Automated Election System (AES) and therefore the veracity and credibility of the election results.

The multi-billion peso AES designed and run by foreign companies and recently bought - lock, stock and barrel - by the COMELEC does not address the major, much less fundamental,  problems which have bedevilled the electoral system but in fact has compounded them.

Any hope that the automated elections would at least reflect the actual voting that takes place has grown dimmer and dimmer.  Many voices, including that of the principal author of the law on automation of elections, are calling for a parallel manual count of the votes cast to act as a tried-and-tested countercheck and at the same time provide a paper trail for any post-elections audit and election protests.

Two key objections have been raised.  At the forefront is the fact that the source code or the human-readable instructions to the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines and the Canvassing and Consolidating Service (CCS) have not been subjected to review by political parties and independent watchdog groups in the country as mandated by law.

The recent offer of COMELEC and SMARTMATIC, the seller of the PCOS machines and CCS system, to finally open the source code to review 5 days before election day, is not only deceptive, it is laughable, since a respectable review would take at least 6 months to accomplish.  Latest news is that COMELEC will only be able to actually possess the source code on May 13, or only on Election Day itself.

In plain language, this means that the instructions to the machines that will scan, read and add up the votes at the precinct level have not been scrutinized and verified by interested parties or independent groups because these were not made available to them by COMELEC.  Neither have the instructions for examining and consolidating the election returns (in computerized or digital form) as they are sent to the municipal, provincial and national canvassing centers been reviewed.

Without this review, the electorate and the people are being asked to trust blindly in the COMELEC in the same manner that COMELEC blindly and recklessly trusts SMARTMATIC; i.e. that there will be no errors -- intended or unintended, human- or machine-made -- of such magnitude as to render the outcome doubtful, controversial and lacking in credibility.  COMELEC’s promises, assurances and claims notwithstanding, neither the poll body nor its foreign partner are in a position to elicit such blind faith.

For what used to be an open or public and verifiable process of tallying the votes, adding them up and forwarding these to the canvassing centers at different levels has now been transformed into an invisible, unexamined and unverifiable process that has rendered election poll watchers inutile, pre-proclamation protests impossible and post-election audits as laborious and as time-consuming as before.

The AES is vulnerable not only to glitches but to wholesale manipulation or automated dagdag-bawas.  Spurious results are then almost impossible to uncover, trace and correct before candidates are proclaimed “winners”.

This situation severely, even fatally, undermines the integrity of the automated elections. The lack of transparency in the way votes will be recorded, tallied, transmitted then canvassed renders the exercise completely undemocratic.

Apart from the problems with the source code however is the more fundamental anomaly of the COMELEC's effective surrender of its mandate of controlling, supervising and safeguarding the entire electoral process by entrusting, through the AES, the counting and canvassing of votes to a foreign business entity which has neither the obligation nor the interest to see to it that the count is a precise and accurate reflection of voter intent.

This original sin has been exposed as a consequence of the legal dispute between Smartmatic, the owner of the PCOS machines, and Dominion Voting System, the owner of the software.  COMELEC could not compel Dominion to turn over the source code (to which the latter had proprietary claims) to the poll body.  Neither could it compel SLI Global Solutions, the foreign entity that COMELEC paid to review the source code, to do the same.  The end result is that COMELEC did not have the source code the whole time that it was preparing for the 2013 elections!

Moreover, the entire time that the source code has been in the hands of these foreign entities and without the verification conducted by Philippine entities, whether this be COMELEC, political parties, election watchdogs and other interested parties, it is rendered vulnerable to undetected tampering.

Clearly, the sacred duty of government to conduct the supposed democratic exercise of elections in order to allow the expression of the people’s sovereign will has been irreparably compromised.

The way COMELEC has handled the situation and in the process circumvented the law, starting from the decision to buy the AES used in 2010 from Smartmatic when the software is under dispute; how it dissembled regarding the status of the source code; its refusal to acknowledge the system’s flaws and vulnerabilities; how it failed to act on the concrete problems in the AES that cropped up and were reported and identified in the 2010 elections and  attacked instead the motives and the competence of critics including IT experts –  all these are danger signals that the AES will be foisted upon the people as a fait accompli in the 2013 and even for the 2016 elections through the collusion of COMELEC officials, SMARTMATIC and all the way up to Malacañang.  (The latter has been noticeably silent about the entire controversy.)

A more insidious line has even been used by COMELEC Chair Sixto Brillantes to defend the indefensible. He cites the 2010 elections wherein the source code was also not subjected to independent review by Filipino IT experts but elections, he says, took place according to plan.  He claims the 2010 elections outcome was widely perceived to be credible.  Otherwise, Mr. Brillantes testily asks, are the AES critics questioning the victory of current President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III?

The only reasonable answer to this empty rhetorical question is that the use of the AES, with all its questionable and unacceptable features, makes Mr. Aquino’s victory unverifiable.  That Mr. Aquino’s win was widely perceived to be a rejection of the corrupt and mendacious Arroyo regime, and as consistent with pre-election surveys, had more to do with the acceptability of the results to the public rather than the credibility of the automated polls itself.

The elections slated for May 13 will proceed by hook or by crook despite the outcry against the AES. COMELEC resists any call for a parallel manual count.  The conventional wisdom being peddled is that what is important is that the results be “credible” from the point of view of the stakeholders-who-matter -- the dominant political parties/candidates and their backers, big business, corporate mass media together with other institutional moulders of public opinion and the shadowy but ultimately influential foreign political and economic interests.

The work of truly independent election watchdogs and those who are committed to genuine people’s democracy continues after the May 13 polls.  Our critique and opposition should lead to the junking of the AES and its replacement with an automated system that would truly reflect the vote, and as far as possible -- given the built-in limits of an elite-ruled society and political system -- the sovereign will of the Filipino people. #

Published in Business World
10-11 May 2013


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