Whatever the outcome of Commission on Elections (Comelec)’s investigation on the unauthorized changes made by Smartmatic-Total Information Management Corp. (Smartmatic) in the transparency server used by the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), it is undeniable that the Venezuelan-owned company committed a serious violation not only of its supply contract but also of the country’s electoral laws.
If only to show that our laws and rules are not to be trifled with, the harshest penalty possible ought to be imposed on Smartmatic – perpetual disqualification from any Philippine elections. After all, there are many (and bigger) providers of electronic voting systems in the world other than Smartmatic.
Comelec chairman Andy Bautista’s explanation (surprisingly echoing Smartmatic’s excuse for lack of a better alibi) that the correction of the computer script of the Comelec transparency server was merely a “cosmetic change” and did not affect the poll results, is at best ill-informed and speculative, and at worst misleading.
Well-intentioned or not, the supposedly “minor” change does not justify Smartmatic tampering with the electronic canvassing system, more so while the bulk of the voting results were being transmitted to the Comelec servers.
The law and the rules are very clear – Any change in the automated election system should have the approval of the Comelec en banc. It did not matter whether the supposed script change was a harmless alteration or not.
Smartmatic’s unauthorized tweaking of Comelec’s computer system is a classic case of the cure being worse that the disease. Even if the modification involved a line of code to replace the “?” character with an “ñ” character (or so they say), the damage it wrought on our electoral process is immeasurable.
With the press of the (Enter) key, Smartmatic shattered not only the so-called “integrity” of Comelec’s electronic canvassing system but also the credibility of the entire automated election process. Although Smartmatic claims it only made a minor change in the program, we’ll probably never know if anything else was altered.
Perhaps more worrisome is the fact that Smartmatic was able to access the computer system and modify the program in the server right under the very nose of Comelec. Apparently, Comelec’s Bautista did not even know about the script change until after the incident blew up in media. That the poll body was the last to know about Smartmatic’s unauthorized changes was confirmed by Comelec commissioner Chris Lim who admitted that “…the change was made and the parties were only informed after the change was made.”
Based on reports, it was representatives of the political parties United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) and the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) who first noticed that the hash codes of the file containing the voting results did not match.
The hash code – composed of a sequence of letters and numbers – is the digital signature of any computer program. Since all files generated by the program should carry this unique code, it is often used by computer analysts to check whether the program has been tampered with. Any change in the program, even changing or deleting a single character, results in a different hash code or hash value.
When PPCRV’s IT director asked the Comelec-Smartmatic technicians “to explain the discrepancy in the hash codes,” it was only then that they were told that Smartmatic engineers made an “adjustment” to the program.
This only proves that the supposed safeguards of Comelec can be easily circumvented by a conspiracy of two: a Smartmatic and Comelec technician who both have the passwords to the computer servers. It also shows that the country’s electronic voting and counting system can be hacked without much effort and without fear of detection.
It is not unexpected therefore that many folks remain skeptical about the vote count, especially in the close vice-presidential race between senator Bongbong Marcos and Leni “Daang Matuwid” Robredo. For one, our co-anchor in the “Executive Session” radio show in DZRH (666AM), Teddy Boy Locsin, asks: “Why is it that the results of the vice-presidential race keep on changing but the senatorial race was always the same?”
In Lamitan, Basilan, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) voters expressed outrage after their votes allegedly vanished, with Robredo garnering all 595 votes while all other presidential bets, including INC-backed Marcos, got zero votes. If that were true, it means even Marcos’ poll watchers didn’t vote for him. Hmmm.
We could overlook Smartmatic’s serious breach of protocol as a one-off. But this is not the first time Smartmatic has been guilty of tampering with the servers while the canvass is on-going. As IT expert and fellow Times columnist Rene Azurin points out, “in 2010, a Smartmatic technician…accessed the canvassing program to change the number of voters, after the tally showed an erroneous 256 million as the total number of registered voters…and in 2013, a Smartmatic technician accessed the canvassing server to correct a script that produced an astonishing 12 million vote surge barely two hours into the canvassing…”
All the while, Smartmatic has been marketing its products to other developing countries, which explains the presence of an Indonesian observer last May 9th. The recent national polls definitely provided the stage for Smartmatic to showcase its capabilities to potential government customers.
Which raises the question: Is Smartmatic merely selling vote counting machines (VCMs)? Or is it also selling its apparent expertise at last minute “tweaks” of computerized voting systems? Just asking.