There is a documentary that came out in 2006 on HBO, titled “Hacking Democracy,” which tells about the three-year efforts of ordinary American citizens, led by Seattle grandmother Bev Harris, to investigate the integrity of the electronic voting machines in the United States.
During the course of the film, the citizens did a series of hack tests and exposed multiple methods of tampering with American votes, from procedural irregularities to corrupting the software and memory cards used by US voting machines.
I wonder if our own officials in the Commission on Elections have seen this film, as it is very instructive on the vulnerability of automated election systems.
Indeed, Comelec officials should probably invite IT experts to try hacking our own Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines to test their security, as what Harris and company did in the film.
Considering the next presidential election is less than two years away and that the Comelec’s service provider, Smartmatic, has really not been very efficient in the 2010 and 2013 elections, despite the billions of pesos the government paid to it, we should be all the more vigilant and concerned.
Vice President Jejomar Binay, so far the frontrunner in election surveys as the country’s next president, has already said that he received information on plans for mass cheating in the 2016 elections.
The performance of Smartmatic’s PCOS machines, which was first rented by the Comelec in the first automated elections in 2010 for almost P8 billion then subsequently purchased for another P4 billion for the 2013 elections, has been dismal.
Various poll watchdogs and IT experts have observed several defects in the PCOS machines. For instance, KontraDaya convenor Renato Reyes noted that in May 2013, some 18,000 of the 79,000 PCOS machines used by the Comelec failed to transmit results on Election Day. He also noted that no real and credible review or audit of the source code, the software that runs the PCOS machines, was ever done.
This was because the source code arrived only a few days before Election Day, as Smartmatic encountered legal trouble with Dominion Voting Systems, the owner of the source code.
That, in itself, exposed a weird setup. We paid billions of pesos in 2009 to Smartmatic to automate our elections, when the company, in fact, was relying on the product provided by the Canada-based Dominion.
So was Smartmatic a mere middleman of the PCOS system? Did we have to pay more and could we not have saved money by going directly to the source?
Indeed, the late delivery of the source code stemmed from the fact that Dominion had already terminated its license agreement with Smartmatic. Hence, Dominion, was no longer obligated to have its software available to Smartmatic, which would have made the PCOS machines useless. Again, the source code contains the crucial sets of instructions for the PCOS machine.
Indeed, the case between Smartmatic and Dominion revealed several noteworthy allegations. For instance, according to Dominion, Smartmatic had no authority to sell us the PCOS machines. Dominion claimed to be the real owner of the machines, both the hardware and software.
Smartmatic had other failures. Poll watchdogs like KontraDaya and AES Watch also noted problems with the compact flash cards and the discrepancies between the electronic results and the random manual audit conducted during the 2013 elections.
The problem with leaving everything to these consistently unreliable PCOS machines of Smartmatic is that there is no way to know if our votes have been recorded accurately or if they were recorded at all.
The Automated Election System (AES) Law (RA 9369) provides for safeguards to prevent possible cheating. Unfortunately, its provisions like those on the random manual audit (RMA) of the election results in at least one precinct in every congressional district and for the Board of Canvassers to announce and report the result of such audit before proclaiming the winners (Section 29), have not been strictly followed.
Another requirement of RA 9369 is the source code independent review, which was also not strictly followed in 2010 and 2013.
Now the Comelec is planning to buy more than 120,000 new PCOS machines worth almost P11 billion for the 2016 presidential elections, and its chairman Sixto Brilliantes has already said in a Senate hearing that buying additional PCOS machines from Smartmatic has an “advantage.”
But this just describes the government’s tendency to throw good money after bad. Just because we have already spent money on something does not mean we should continue spending money on it, as the same defective PCOS machines that failed in the 2013 and 2010 elections will undoubtedly fail again, surely aiding fraud instead of guaranteeing against it.