Before Comelec chair Brillantes retires Feb. 2
January 27, 2015

The Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch), a broad citizens’ election watchdog of 40-plus affiliated organizations, today asked Congress to conduct a demonstration to test whether Comelec’s PCOS voting system can be hacked.

In an urgent letter to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee (JCOC) on AES, Senate Committee on Electoral Reform and People’s Participation (CERPP), and the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reform (CSER), AES Watch’s IT members composed of programmers and IT security experts said they accept Comelec Chairman Sixto S. Brillantes Jr.’s recent challenge to show that the PCOS system can be tampered with and election results rigged electronically.

The letter was signed by AES Watch’s lead conveners and members including Nelson J. Celis, group spokesperson; Bishop Broderick Pabillo, AES Watch co-convener and CBCP public affairs; Dr. Pablo R. Manalastas, a programming guru from UP and Ateneo and CenPEG IT Fellow; and Maricor Akol, also of Leo Querubin, president of the Philippine Computer Society (PCS), also signed. 

Former Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman, the country’s first IT practitioner and co-convener of AES Watch, earlier accepted Brillantes’ challenge to demonstrate automated hacking.

AES Watch asked the three Congress committees to hold the demo within the week or before Brillantes, along with two commissioners, retire on Feb. 2. “External hacking is not the main problem,” the AES Watch letter read. “What is most worrisome is the PCOS machines are vulnerable to tampering by an INSIDER.” It quotes Lagman’s Jan. 12 letter to Brillantes: “Not only can the PCOS software and CF cards be tampered by an insider, but also the Consolidation and Canvassing System and the Election Management System. They shouldn’t be if Smartmatic made tight controls which it didn’t.”

Brillantes, on Jan. 7, first dared Lagman to show how the (election) results can be tampered” at the Comelec and in the presence of election stakeholders and media. Lagman replied: The onus of proving the system safe from manipulation is on Smartmatic and Comelec “since both removed all the safeguards. Still, I accept your invitation.”

But Lagman asked the presence of at least one Smartmatic technician – an “insider” computer programmer – who should know the software and how to modify it. “I will ask him to explain the different modules that comprise the software, as well as the data format and contents of the CF cards; after which, I will instruct him where and what to alter,” he said.

Many reports and evidence-based cases have surfaced since 2010, when the first Smartmatic-supplied automated election was held, showing system vulnerabilities and deficiencies including tampered election returns, compact flash (CF) cards altered, programming errors, and other disturbing incidents. Early in 2014, the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) revealed signs of election results possibly changed with distorted digital lines appearing in ballot images. There have also been reports of local poll officials and fraud specialists approaching candidates to make them win electronically for a huge fee.

The Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), along with other AES Watch groups, has since 2010 called for the junking of the Smartmatic-supplied Precinct Count Optical System (PCOS) and development of an indigenous election technology by the country’s IT experts.

In a related move, 25 CBCP bishops last week asked Comelec to rescind its Resolution 9922 awarding a P300-million contract to Smartmatic-TIM for the diagnostic tests of 80,000 PCOS machines bought by Comelec in 2012. The bishops, led by Bishop Pabillo, said they are “disturbed that many contracts have been awarded to the Venezuelan company, Smartmatic, since 2010 to automate Philippine national and local elections now amounting to billions of taxpayers’ money – despite undisputed findings by citizens’ election watchdogs, IT experts, and other concerned groups with regard to non-compliance by both Comelec and Smartmatic of election and procurement laws that compromised the transparency, security, accuracy, and trustworthiness of the AES.”

CenPEG IT experts had volunteered in 2010 to review the PCOS’ source code as mandated by law pro bono to assess its accuracy, security, and trustworthiness. (CenPEG won the landmark Supreme Court case compelling Comelec and Smartmatic to release the source code for a 6-month review by political parties and other election stakeholders. The source code was never released for proper review for the 2010 and 2013 automated elections.)

Both houses of Congress had previously held mock polls and accuracy tests on the PCOS system. AES Watch’s IT members, mathematicians, and other observers submitted reports to Congress disputing the system’s reliability citing, in particular, an accuracy rate of 97% way below the required 99.9995%.

In its January 27 letter to Congress, AES Watch also said: “What is at stake in this fight is not only about truth and accountability but for HOPE. We face tremendous problems – a society without civic discipline, cynical and short of compassion, a government ridden with incompetence and corruption, a slide toward tyranny of the few with the poor growing more dispirited and hopeless. But the power to change all that is held by the people. As long as they have the power to choose, they can change our country for the good. It is this power to choose that is stake in the PCOS issue. If we lose it to election manipulators, we will lose everything.”

The letter was also signed by Mother Mary John Manansan, OSB, of Pagbabago and Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP); Evita L. Jimenez, CenPEG executive director; Dr. Temario C. Rivers, CenPEG chair; Dr. Rene Azurin, AES Watch; and Hector A. Barrios, systems analyst.

AES Watch was convened in January 2010 by, among other groups, the UP Alumni Association (UPAA), CenPEG, CBCP-NASSA, PCS Foundation, National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP), National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP),, PhiCert, Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM), AMRSP, Association of Schools of Public Administration of the Philippines (ASPAP, based in UP-NCPAG), Computing Society of the Philippines (CSP), Transparency International (TI-Philippines), Movement for Good Governance (MGG), Computer Professionals Union, Pagbabago, Solidarity Philippines, and IT/computer studies professors from Ateneo, DLSU, and UP. Its first spokesperson is now UP President Alfredo E. Pascual and has former Vice President Teofisto T. Guingona, Jr. as honorary president.

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