Watchdog warns against another Comelec-Smartmatic ‘midnight deal’

AES Watch conveners, IT experts, academicians urge for contingencies  in light of bungled AES preparations (Photo from AES Watch website)
AES Watch conveners, IT experts, academicians urge for contingencies in light of bungled AES preparations (Photo from AES Watch website)

“What is most worrisome is the PCOS machines are vulnerable to tampering by an insider.”

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – While a petition seeking to nullify a P268-million “midnight deal” between the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and Smartmatic-TIM is still pending in the Supreme Court, the Comelec Bids and Awards Committee made two decisions recently, which are seen as giving favor again to Smartmatic-TIM.

In a statement emailed to the media by (Automated Election System) AES Watch, one of the groups that petitioned the high court to stop the ‘midnight deal,’ it questioned the election body for reversing its earlier dismissal of a bid by Smartmatic-TIM to supply additional 23,000 election counting machines. The Comelec also held a closed-door demonstration-test on April 6 of PCOS machines (or OMR machines) by Smartmatic-TIM.

In an interview with Bulatlat.com, Bobby Tuazon, AES Watch co-convener and CenPEG director for policy studies, said these Comelec decisions put to question again the integrity of the Comelec and raises questions on the transparency of 2016 elections.

In the AES Watch statement, it disclosed that an official of the Comelec Bids and Awards Committee said Smartmatic requested for exclusivity (during the demonstration-testing of its machines) and Comelec acting chair Christian Lim approved it. AES Watch said no independent observers were present at the demonstration. “Why is Smartmatic afraid to hold a real public demonstration?” it asked.

Since the Comelec has acted on Smartmatic’s wishes, despite the law on procurement and the law on automated elections mandating transparency, AES Watch suspected that with regard to the Comelec’s procurement of additional machines for 2016 polls, “It’s a done deal from the start.” Although it is still a notice of award, and not yet a completed contract, some conveners of the AES Watch worry that Smartmatic, with its machines’ questionable failures in past 2010 and 2013 elections, may again score another deal. For Comelec, the company remains the “most eligible” to bid for its needed 23,000 OMR (Optical Mark Reader) as replacement to PCOS (Precinct Count Optical Scan) machines.

An ongoing fight for clean election

In the 2010 and 2013 elections, AES Watch and other election watchdogs have also pursued transparency in the acquisition and running of automated elections. They repeatedly challenged the Comelec and its technology and service provider, Smartmatic, to abide by the election law’s provisions on instituting safeguards from tampering of election results.

The result was a series of battles between Comelec and Smartmatic on one hand and election watchdogs and IT experts on the other hand. From the issue of allowing IT experts to review the source code to be used in the PCOS system to the Comelec allowing the disabling of security features and the lack of transparency not just in counting but in transmitting election results, AES Watch and various election watchdogs have repeatedly warned that the Comelec-Smartmatic ‘shortcuts’ have made automated tampering of votes possible.

Bulatlat FILE PHOTO: Protesters in front of Comelec headquarters  in Manila denounce the 'hocu-pocus' of PCOS machines (June 2013 /  Bulatlat.com)
Bulatlat FILE PHOTO: Protesters in front of Comelec headquarters in Manila denounce the ‘hocus-pocus’ of PCOS machines (June 2013 / Bulatlat.com)

The same trend is happening today, as AES Watch criticizes the Comelec’s sudden decision to reverse its earlier dismissal of Smartmatic’s new bid offering, and its sudden holding of a demonstration-testing of Smartmatic’s machines which Tuazon said was held “without advance notice to stakeholders, on mere request of Smartmatic to hold it exclusively with Comelec.” He reiterated AES Watch’s old proposal – to disallow further participation of Smartmatic in bidding for new contracts with Comelec.

Amid all these, AES Watch was criticized in turn by retired Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes, who calls the election watchdog the “most visible critics” and “detractors” of the Comelec and Smartmatic PCOS chief operators. This is also a continuing trend with the Comelec, lashing at the critics as AES Watch described it.

In the past automated elections overseen by Brillantes, he threatened election watchdogs with surveillance using Comelec’s intelligence funds. Early this year, he dared AES Watch to prove that automated hacking is possible with the PCOS machines supplied by Smartmatic.

The group agreed, as long as Smartmatic will let one Smartmatic technician to participate – an “insider” computer programmer – who should know the software and how to modify it.

“External hacking is not the main problem,” said the AES Watch. “What is most worrisome is the PCOS machines are vulnerable to tampering by an insider.”

The hacking demonstration did not push through and Brillantes retired from the Comelec on February. After that, Former Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman who also worked with AES Watch conveners wrote the Comelec. He requested for “a meeting between the Commissioners and some of us IT practitioners who are also automated election advocates.” He told Bulatlat that along with his request was an offer to assist the Comelec in preparing for the 2016 elections. He is set to meet with the Comelec on Friday, April 10, to demonstrate what he calls as Transparent and Credible Election System or TCrES, a combination of manual and automated election system that eliminates the need for PCOS machines and its opaque handling of people’s votes.

Without PCOS, he proposes instead for the counting to be done manually at the end of election day with parallel laptop computer count projecting the result in a big screen, so everybody can see it. He said voting continued to be done manually in the Philippines even in the past automated polls. His proposal will not change that, but will make its counting per precinct more transparent. From there, automation starts with the laptop computer projecting the results of publicly held counting and then transmitting it. From his explanation, any change thereafter in transmitted results is more easily discoverable given the transparent counting.

He said it is still automated polls, only more transparent and not as expensive as Smartmatic’s PCOS system. He wants the Comelec to donate after elections the laptop computers to be used during the counting to the schools, thus eliminating warehousing and maintenance cost of PCOS machines.

The Comelec will hear Lagman out this Friday, even as it considers the Smartmatic bid for 23,000 PCOS-like OMR machines for 2016 polls. ()

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