Thursday, March 3, 2011 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES
Strategic Perspective --
by René B. Azurin

The insidious Smartmatic lobby

Lobbying for the continued use of the Smartmatic automated election system in this country has been ratcheted up a few notches. As if in sync, several columnists with little knowledge of computer technology are now contradicting computer science professors and information technology experts who have issued detailed reports and public statements criticizing the Smartmatic system as flawed, faulty, and insecure. This media blitzkrieg is the latest salvo in the battle for control of Philippine elections.

The drumbeaters for the Smartmatic system include the commissioners of the Commission on Elections -- though they are not the only ones -- who insist that we should buy Smartmatic's voting machines and use its system again for the ARMM elections in August because "there is no more time to go through the regular bidding process." The question I'd like to ask these fellows is, whoever said that automated voting machines -- whether Smartmatic's or not -- are necessary for the conduct of the ARMM elections? As local IT guru Manuel Alcuaz Jr. has pointed out, "Why do we need automation for the ARMM elections? Only three positions per ballot. Probably six to ten candidates total. Manual reading and tallying should take less than one hour." He stresses, "We should not preempt the choice of a better system for 2013." Well, Mr. Alcuaz hits the nail on its head. That's precisely what the promoters of the Smartmatic system are trying to do.

(Just to add, lest I be misunderstood, I am not in favor of postponing elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as some top officials have proposed. Further, I am definitely not in favor of the President appointing "interim OICs [officers-in-charge]" to take over positions in the ARMM government when the terms of the present elected officials end.)

I cannot overemphasize the fact that this insidious Smartmatic lobby will put a shadowy foreign group in complete control of our electoral processes. This group will be easily able to manipulate poll results and can effectively decide who will be the winners and who will be the losers in all elections that use this automated system. Dagdag-bawas, done electronically, will be child's play. More significantly, the conspiracy required to rig elections need no longer be extensive -- as it was in manual dagdag-bawas -- but will only need to involve a handful of strategically positioned individuals and one knowledgeable computer programmer. Let us mince no words here: these individuals -- and their foreign masters -- will have in their hands the sole power to determine our country's future via the selection of our political leaders.

Okay, so what do we know about Smartmatic? Well, we know that it is a Venezuelan firm, allegedly with ties to Hugo Chavez. The electronic voting software Smartmatic used belongs to Dominion Voting Systems, a Colorado-based company that bragged, in its own press release, that it "provided the ImageCast precinct count optical scan (PCOS) technology that played a key role in the Philippines' historic success" in the May 2010 Philippine elections. Dominion now also owns Sequoia Voting Systems and the security firm Diebold's e-voting unit, making it the second largest voting machine company in the US. Not incidentally, both Sequoia and Diebold have had questions raised in the US about the integrity and security of their electronic voting systems.

After all, it is not as if the flaws and faults of the Smartmatic system emerged only in the May 2010 Philippine elections. New York State, for example, continues to have problems with Dominion/Sequoia electronic voting systems. In elections in November 2009, a virus was reported to have infected the computerized voting machines in some counties "casting doubts on the accuracy of the counts retrieved." Election officials were reported to have noted that "[t]he ImageCast machines have one more significant and scary flaw: USB ports. USB ports allow various devices to be attached to a computer in order to input information, connect a device, add wireless network capability and so on. Wireless network devices and USB storage devices can (and are) made small enough to fit into a regular wristwatch or bracelet. Through either type of device, software hacks or remote control of the voting machine could be implemented or a virus introduced... (adjusting) election counts with the County or State Boards of Election none the wiser." These USB ports are exactly the same as those found on the PCOS machines Smartmatic provided for the May 2010 elections here. These are the same ones that local IT security experts complained about as non-specification and a security no-no.

According to an election watchdog group in the US,, Rice University computer security expert Dan Wallach said that "even New York's standards, if somehow met [Dominion/Sequoia did not meet them], would not secure these systems from fraud." In an interview, Mr. Wallach said, "This is a classic computer security problem. Whoever gets into the machine first wins. So if the Trojan horse software is in there first, you ask it to test itself, it will always lie to you and tell you everything is fine. And no matter what testing code you try to add after the fact, it's too late."

In Chicago, software programmer and investigative journalist Brad Friedman wrote earlier this year that Sequoia president Jack Blaine had been "lying" about Sequoia's "continuing relationship with the Chavez-tied Venezuelan firm (Smartmatic)." He then adds, "The company's new owners, Dominion, have been keeping up the tradition of deception."

Mr. Friedman has been warning Chicago voters of the "100% unverifiability of any and every vote cast on that system... (noting) a litany of failures of both the voting system and the company who originally sold it to a number of gullible election jurisdictions across the country." He observes that the Sequoia system "has been hacked many times, and is still-hackable in a multitude of ways" and that "[t]he paper trail is not actually counted by anyone, no matter what it says, as the system relies on the internally recorded, 100% unverifiable, completely invisible-to-voters tally done by the computer system." He cites a recent video that "shows how simple it is for an election insider, in a matter of seconds, armed with little more than a $10 thumb drive, to game the system in such a way that even a 100% hand-count of those so-called 'verifiable paper audit trails' would be unlikely to reveal that the election run on them had been completely rigged...."

The Smartmatic system, if institutionalized in this country, is a dangerous political development. Yet, few -- politicians and ordinary voters alike -- seem to be aware of the danger. Why is it, I wonder, that people would not pay heed to the pronouncements of the real technical experts and, instead, listen to the opinions of those who understand virtually nothing about a technical subject? One industry expert whom I will call Ed notes ruefully that the Smartmatic issue "is now being dominated by the opinions of sophists and non-IT experts who cannot distinguish between a quality-assured and secure system from one that is untrusted and non-transparent. The problem is that they think that they can just deplore the research work done by technical specialists. No wonder this country is in such a miserable state." Oh yes.

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