Original article posted in Carlo Florendo's Facebook on May 16, 2019. Edited version published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily on May 27, 2019. Published here on June 4, 2019. Revised
August 27, 2023.
When Smartmatic became the contractor to automate the election system in the Philippines in 2010, its counting system was criticized by computer experts, some of whom came from the Department of Computer Science of the University of the Philippines (UP).
These experts were not simply teachers but multi-awarded industry practitioners; they had experience working with gigatons of data, including deployment of secure systems with stringent requirements on data-encryption and high-availability network transmission.
When this team of experts expressed a proposal to COMELEC, they received anonymous email and text messages that told them to stop their plan. Some members of the team received death threats. Yes, this was in 2010 when Smartmatic first set up an automated local election system in the Philippines. The Smartmatic Philippine project was the biggest Smartmatic counting machine project in the world. It had the most number of counting machines deployed.
Being a practitioner in the field of automation, I know that Smartmatic is not a fly-by-night company. It has good technicians and technology. The problem is not Smartmatic but the COMELEC. People ignorant about automation, encryption, and network transmission technologies run the COMELEC, up to this day.
In May 14 2019, I watched the press conference of COMELEC at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC). Responding to a question from a journalist, COMELEC spokesperson James Jimenez described the 7-hour vote-count delay. He mentioned "FTP bottlenecks," "data queueing" and even dropped words such as "insert" operations and "select" operations. The terms "insert" and "select" refer to Structured Query Language (SQL) instructions on databases.
Why in the world did Jimenez mention FTP? FTP is the most insecure and hack-prone file transmission technology! For serious transmission systems, nobody mentions FTP, not even in whispers!
And there can be no bottlenecks if experts design the systems properly, which is easy to do because the machines transmit only numbers and identification codes. Even if the machines send a billion messages, the network traffic should not exceed the size of the last 2 or 3 episodes of the Game of Thrones series.
Obviously, the IT group of COMELEC had coached Jimenez. He seemed to be pretending to be an IT guy at the presscon. But we IT practitioners could read between the lines. We knew that the COMELEC had come unprepared. It means our taxes were not spent properly. With billions of pesos in the budget and 3 years to prepare, things should have been smoother now.
The problem was the result of the election was not immediately published. What caused everyone to doubt the integrity of the election was the 7-hour delay. As of this writing, only 96.3% of the results has been transmitted. A quick result transmission would have dispelled speculations about cheating and manipulation.
The COMELEC should have installed several mechanisms for vote-count transmission: 4G, SMS, and Direct Internet. Then, they should have leased an encrypted line from the telcos for data-transmission backup. I'm sure they did not perform these procedures.
And now, the pasabog2: To prevent cheating, the COMELEC should have employed the latest, the greatest, the state-of-the-art and bleeding-edge technology on data security and integrity: theBLOCKCHAIN. If the people in charge of automation in COMELEC have not even heard of blockchain, they should resign and return to the Stone Age.
Blockchain is the basis of cryptocurrencies, yes. Many doubt cryptocurrencies, but blockchain will make cheating in the vote-count impossible. Why? Because by design, blockchain mirrors the vote-count and distribute it across various devices. Blockchain ensures the security of data by not having a single point of failure. Here's an analogy: I cannot steal from my mother's purse because that would mean that I would have to hack through the central bank, the stock market, the sellers and buyers of everything that had been bought and sold in the entire history of the Philippine Peso. It's because everyone has a record of all transactions.
So, the next COMELEC chairperson should push blockchain. The current COMELEC chairperson should step down. Smartmatic is already doing blockchain. Too bad, the image of Smartmatic has been tainted. But Smartmatic is not the problem. It's the ignorant COMELEC people who don't know what technology to use and who do not have genuine experts in technology. Smartmatic is just an implementer. They will only do what they're commanded to do. If incompetent and corrupt officials give them instructions, they'll have no choice.
Times have changed and it's not enough for lawyers to run COMELEC. We need technocrats. We need real IT experts who know how to run an election system using blockchain.
1Carlo Florendo is an IT expert who works for Alpha Opensource, an IT firm that designs software for enterprises. Florendo is also a member of Computer Vision and Machine Intelligence Group (CVMIG) of the Department of Computer Science in the Philippines (UP)-Diliman. CVMIG is the artificial intelligence (AI) research arm of the department.
Florendo finished his Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science in 2000 and completed his Master's Degree in Finance and Investment Banking in 2009.
Florendo's article is edited and used with permission by Elson T. Elizaga for his column in Mindanao Gold Star Daily.
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