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Comelec OKs use of digital signatures in 2013 polls

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) will again use digital signature embedded in the voting machine in the 2013 elections despite a poll watchdog's claim that it violates the Automated Elections System (AES) law. In Resolution No. 9573 promulgated December 7, a copy of which was obtained by GMA News Online, the Comelec en banc “resolves to again use the PCOS digital certificate to digitally sign the election returns for the May 13, 2013 National and Local Elections.” This means the Comelec will verify election returns (ERs) using a digital signature that is encoded by a Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machine, the ballot counting device supplied by the Smartmatic-Total Information Management consortium. The PCOS would not digitally sign a tampered ER. According to the Supreme Court’s rules on Republic Act 8792 or the E-Commerce Act, a digital signature refers to “an electronic signature consisting of a transformation of an electronic document or an electronic data message… such that a person having the initial untransformed electronic document… can accurately determine ... whether the initial electronic document had been altered after the transformation was made.” The E-Commerce Act, meanwhile, defines an electronic signature as “any distinctive mark, characteristic, and/or sound in electronic form, representing the identity of a person and attached to or logically associated with the electronic data message or electronic document… with the intention of authenticating or approving an electronic data message or electronic document.” Bobby Tuazon, executive director of poll watchdog Center for People Empowerment in Governance, however claimed Comelec is violating the Republic Act 9369 or the AES Law. “All the while they’re trying to deceive us when they said in 2011 and this year that they will use the minimum requirements of the AES Act, which includes the digital signature. They’re backtracking on their commitment to comply with the requirements,” Tuazon told GMA news Online in a phone interview. He noted that the AES Law state that the digital signature should be made and known only to the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) and not the PCOS machine. Under Section 9 of the AES Law, election returns “shall be signed and thumbmarked by all the members of the board of election inspectors and the watchers present.” “The danger there is that the digital signature is machine-operated [and] will be known again to the Comelec. They should have no access to the digital signature. Not even the Comelec commissioners. That is supposed to be the authorization only to the BEIs,” Tuazon said. He added that ERs should be considered null and void without a personal digital signature. “Since the procedure is not complied with, then the ERs should be deemed null and void kasi walang signature as authorized by law,” Tuazon said. The Comelec en banc ruled that they could not issue digital signatures by the BEIs because the poll body will only decide on the list of BEIs early next year, which is “too close to the elections to allow for the issuance of personal digital signatures.” The Comelec in the resolution added that “the use of personal signatures exposes the BEIs to higher probabilities of coercion, violence and bribery.” “Kung lahat bibigyan mo ng digital signature, ‘yung potential ng threat, abduction, and hostaging of BEIs and teachers... baka hindi matuloy ang halalan,” said Commissioner Rene Sarmiento. Sarmiento said the issue has long been resolved by the Supreme Court, citing the case Capalla vs. Comelec, which ruled that the PCOS machines are capable of digitally-signed transmission. Smartmatic president Cesar Flores, for his part, hit the poll watchdog, saying the E-commerce law allows machine-operated signatures and not just personal ones. He cited Section 11, which states, “[E]lectronic signatures shall be authenticated by demonstrating, substantiating and validating a claimed identity of a user, device, or another entity is an information or communication system, among other way.” “[The law says] digital signatures can be used to authenticate a person or device,” Flores told GMA News Online in a separate phone interview. He added that digital signatures handled by over 240,000 BEIs nationwide would not make candidates feel any safer on the credibility of election results. “Wouldn’t they complain even more if the password is known by the BEIs? Will this make the candidates feel safer?” Flores asked rhetorically. The Comelec earlier ruled to purchase to the tune of P1.8 billion the 82,000 PCOS machines used in the 2010 elections. The poll body is also bidding out the ballot boxes and transmission modems for the PCOS. Smartmatic won the bid on transmission modems, while it is the lone bidder during the pre-bid conference on ballot boxes. Meanwhile, poll watchdogs have also hit Smartmatic for using a "pirated" technology after its licensing agreement with the PCOS software owner Dominion Voting Systems was cancelled. The Venezuelan firm has denied the accusations. — KBK, GMA News