Internet advocates have long argued that the spread of online access and social media has enhanced democracy by giving ordinary people the power to broadcast their views and tens of millions of supporters across the globe for next to nothing. Thus, the little guy could potentially wield the same influence as Hobbes’s Leviathan, whether it be a powerful government, a giant corporation, or a world religion.
From Charise Pempengco’s mega-break on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show via YouTube video and the crowning of American Idols by cellphone and cyber votes, to the uploading of confidential U.S. diplomatic emails on wikileaks.com and the ouster of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak by crowds mobilized through social media, the nameless have become big names moving and shaking the firmament of politics, business and culture by their online exploits.
To many an Internet surfer or supporter, such e-ruptions of Everyman into electronic Olympus demonstrate how digital is driving democracy’s dominance. And as connections and information proliferate to darkest Earth by wire, fiber and ether, the world’s masses are at last irresistibly taking the clout eternally denied them by age-old rulers exploiting ignorance, intimidation and isolation. Nevermore!
So do freedom and dignity finally have the chance to uplift the downtrodden, thanks to broadband and smartphone? Will the majority’s will and welfare shape national and international agenda with the hammer blows of billions of bytes that would not be silenced or swept away? Will the world finally have e-government for the people, by the people and for the people, at least those with send buttons at their fingertips?
Edward Snowden and Tanggulang Demokrasya, among other purveyors of exposes on e-subjugation, would beg to differ. For these computer-savvy Cassandras warning of geeks bearing gifts, most people are oblivious to how information and communication technology (ICT) and automated processes, from email and phone calls to search engines and automated polls, can be invaded and manipulated by the powers that be.
Waiting in Moscow airport’s transit area to be granted political asylum in Ecuador, Snowden blew the whistle on the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM program to access information on foreign users of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and six other leading Internet companies in America. All that to uncover and fight terrorist plots.
The Washington Post reported that both the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document”—a presentation on PRISM leaked by Snowden, to be exact.
Nobodies compared with global celebrity Snowden, but possibly unmasking an even greater threat to freedom was Tanggulang Demokrasya. At a press conference in Greenhills last week, the TanDem group of raised alarm over computerized fraud in the May automated elections.
The allegation was based on a statistically improbable pattern of voting across all regions, in which administration candidates got around 60 percent of canvassing tallies, the opposition about 30 percent, and independents the remaining 10 percent or so. Past voting disparities between regions and provinces vanished or greatly diminished in the 60-30-10 trend.
The highly suspicious pattern occurred amid other gravely disturbing anomalies in the polls. A quarter of the more than 80,000 precinct count optical scan (PCOS) vote tallying machines failed to send results for more than a week after the May 13 polls. Despite the hugely incomplete count due to the late transmission, the Commission on Elections, chaired by President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s former poll lawyer Sixto Brillantes Jr., proclaimed winners in violation of law.
The Comelec also did not implement digital signatures to verify PCOS transmissions. It released the counting software or source code too late for independent public review as required by law. And the Commission rendered the third key safeguard, the random manual audit or counting of votes, useless by announcing RMA precincts three days ahead of the verification count, thus allowing any PCOS fraudsters to simply avoid those voting centers due to be “randomly” audited.
Thus, on both sides of the Pacific (and the Atlantic, too, since Snowden also exposed the NSA’s British equivalent, Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ), governments are allegedly using ICT to undermine the freedom of citizens, whether it is privacy of communications or the right to vote without interference and fraud.
But that’s not the most worrisome aspect of the PRISM and PCOS controversies. Rather, it is the largely unconcerned or disinterested attitude of both Americans and Filipinos in their respective controversies.
Most of the former rightly agreed that less privacy was a fair price to pay for greater security. But what seems wrong is the general lack of agitation in the U.S. for greater and clearer oversight, transparency and accountability for ICT surveillance. That led The Economist newsmagazine to correctly argue that counter-terrorism initiatives “should be based on informed consent, not blind trust.”
If most Americans seems not terribly concerned about cyber surveillance, the great majority of Filipinos are ignorant and uninformed about PCOS failings. Major media has gone along with the administration’s line that the elections went well overall, with no anomalies worth devoting many column inches and much air time to.
The three top newspapers and the leading broadcast network did not accord sustained and prominent coverage to the PCOS anomalies cited by watchdog groups. Certainly there was nothing like the kind of widespread, intense and relentless media agitation over the allegations of election fraud in 2004, which certainly had nothing as appalling like the wholesale disregard of legally mandated safeguards and the mammoth proportion of election results suffering long and suspicious delays in reporting.
Thus, as happened in 2010, ordinary Filipinos have little knowledge and even less concern about how the sovereign will of the electorate was gravely compromised in another round of computerized vote counting and canvassing with little protection for and verification of truthful tabulation. Talk about blind trust.
The online assault on privacy and the computerization of election cheating—all accepted or unknown by citizens unable or unwilling to demand full understanding and knowledge of how complex computer systems are being used by the state. Rather than spreading and strengthening freedom, digital may well be the death of democracy.