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Eleksyon 2013

The Ghost in the (PCOS) Machine: Is there a better alternative?

May 14, 2013 5:36pm

Pinoys cast their vote for 2013 midterm elections
Pinoys cast their vote for 2013 midterm elections. A nun casts her vote at a precinct in Araullo High School in Manila on Monday. Millions are expected to vote nationwide amid PCOS machine problems in other areas. Danny Pata
The government and the general public have all but declared the May 13 Philippine general elections an overall success, and it's now just a matter of time before all the mostly machine-tallied votes are in. 
 
But the lingering question remains: Can the machines be trusted? And is there a better alternative?
 
Underscored confidence
 
Certainly, both the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and its Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machine supplier, Smartmatic Asia, have constantly underscored the reliability of the automated elections. 
 
The poll agency earlier expressed confidence that it would see a two-percent failure rate at most —equivalent to 1,560 out of 78,000 machines. Smartmatic was even more optimistic, expecting defective machines to "reach (just) 200 or 300."
 
And although the Comelec has yet to issue official figures on the performance of its machines at the polls as of May 14, anecdotal evidence seems to back their claim: the Eleksyon 2013 Incident Tracker, a joint effort between GMA News and the AMA Education System, posted just 1,063 reports of "PCOS machine problems" as of late afternoon on election day.
 
Even one of the automated election's staunchest critics, former Comelec commissioner Augusto "Gus" Lagman, agrees that technical problems should be the least of anyone's concerns.
 
"If a machine breaks down, it's easy enough to get a technician to repair or replace it," Lagman told GMA News in a phone interview.
 
Who watches the machines?
 
Yet despite the apparent success of the May 13 polls, Lagman is uneasy about how everyone seems to accept the results from the automated voting machinery so easily.
 
He believes that the public should be more worried about how the machines work, rather than if they work in the first place.
 
"Hardware glitches are easy to solve and fix, but the (issue of) non-transparency wasn't fixed. It's not transparent, we still don't know (if there are unseen problems in the machines)," he said.
 
Lagman is concerned that the Philippine public has basically entrusted the entire elections to Comelec and Smartmatic: between them, the two agencies hold all the cards insofar as monitoring the reliability of the voting machines is concerned.
 
"What worries me more is that the results are published, people accept them —but are they accurate? What about possible errors in the source code? The CF cards? People don't see these. There is no transparency at all," he said.
 
Getting to the source
 
The much-publicized source code —the computer instructions that tell each PCOS machine how to count votes— has been a particular sticking point in Lagman's criticism of the entire automated process.
 
Since the source code is used to program all the PCOS machines even before they are shipped out across the country, it is a potential point of weakness if not properly calibrated or, worse, if it contains instructions that allow hackers to take control behind the scenes —a "backdoor," as it's called in computer programming parlance.
 
But whether from hackers or from simple human error, any programming problems remain unknown —especially since the source code was released to the public just days before the elections, leaving no time for local experts to analyze the thousands of lines of code contained therein.
 
Grounds for annulment
 
For his part, Comelec commissioner Sixto Brillantes Jr. assured the public that the source code had been independently reviewed and certified by an internationally accredited testing company. He was so confident with the integrity of the source code that he told local reporters that, should any anomalies be found, the Comelec is ready to "annul the elections."
 
But Lagman said that a proper review of the code would take months, by which time the elections will have been long over and done with —and the declared winners firmly in office.
 
"Medyo natatakot ako," Lagman told GMA News in a separate interview. "Halimbawa may nakitang diperensya sa source code, meron nang nanalo, madami natalo. 'Pag nagkaproblema na lumabas, sasabihin ng natalo invalid. Wala akong solusyon doon. Masyadong nakatatakot."
 
Off-the-shelf alternatives
 
Even though the elections seem to have concluded on a satisfying note —at least until the source code has been properly reviewed— Lagman believes that the Comelec should seriously reassess its automated election strategy.
 
"Comelec should look at other systems and check the cost-benefit of each," he said.
 
He argues that precinct counting can be kept manual while the canvassing and transmission of election returns should be done electronically, since the latter involves a longer duration and is most susceptible to manipulation.
 
According to Lagman, the development of an automated consolidation and canvassing system (CCS) is the more cost-effective option because the government could use just off-the-shelf laptops instead of the purpose-built —and therefore much more expensive— PCOS machines.
 
The CCS would also have the benefit of transparency, since almost anyone would be able to see and tally the votes for themselves.
 
"I've always believed in 'secret voting, public counting'," Lagman concluded. — YA, GMA News
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