Expert rates automation: slim chance of success (1)

This was from Jarius Bondoc’s column, “Gotcha”, published in the April 5, 2010 edition of the Philippine Star, Opinion Section.  This is the first of three parts.

Mar. 8, Smartmatic-TIM came out with full-page ads claiming “a vote of confidence for the 2010 automated election system.” The automation contractor listed accomplishments in five subsystems: (1) Hardware, supplies, consumables; (2) Software, certification, voter education; (3) Logistics, support, preparations; (4) Telecommunications and transmission; and (5) Ballot printing, infrastructure.

IT expert Roberto Verzola evaluated the claims for civil society’s Halalang Marangal (HALAL). Finding serious gaps that open the subsystems to cheating, he gives his own rating. Following is his Mar. 28 updated report to HALAL leaders, ex-senator Bobby Tañada, former election commissioner Mehol Sadain, retired general Francisco Gudani, PRRM president Isagani Serrano, St. Scholastica’s College president Sr. Mary John Mananzan, and TOYM awardee Atty. Maria Paz Luna (1st of 3 parts, edited for space):

Remember, most election frauds are inside jobs. Be less worried about hackers and other external threats. More worrisome are cheats who have inside access to the automated election system (AES) — to do what they’ve always done with impunity under the manual system.
By “success” we mean: (1) absence of significant cheating and similar problems that have chronically attended elections, and (2) canvassing that is significantly shorter than manual method. Otherwise, we would consider the AES a failure. This is different from the legalistic term “failure of election,” for which officials mean that no actual voting occurred. By their definition, if voters are able to cast ballots, then there’s no election failure.

Due to space limitation, we cover only the most serious problems we identified.

Subsystem 1: Hardware, supplies and consumables

Claim: “82,200 PCOS (precinct count optical scan) machines [and batteries] manufactured and delivered.”

Note the glaring omission — no mention of the number of machines tested and accepted by Comelec. Due diligence requires that Comelec personnel — not Smartmatic-TIM — thoroughly test each of the machines for compliance with contract specifications. Comelec should not accept, deploy or pay for machines that do not meet contract specs. Instead it should ask Smartmatic-TIM to replace these machines.

But can Comelec finish testing on time? HALAL convenor and ex-Comelec commissioner Sadain recalls that in 2004 they took three months to thoroughly test 1,990 counting machines. Given this experience and the Smartmatic delivery delays, thorough testing of 82,200 machines is an imposing challenge. If the tests are rushed — Smartmatic says it is testing 2,000 PCOS a day — then we risk deploying for May 10 hurriedly tested machines that can fail, reject valid ballots, or scan inaccurately.

Among test results, HALAL considers most important the following:

• failure rates (the machines’ mean time between failure, or MTBF);
• rate of rejection of valid ballots; and
• scan error rate (less than 5 in 100,000 marks, according to contract specs).

Failure and error rates in transmission equipment are also extremely important. We have asked Comelec, political parties, and poll watchdogs if they have obtained any test statistics. Aside from field tests and mock elections, when media reported inordinately high ballot rejection rates and transmission problems, there seems to be complete blackout regarding the test results. This is a bad sign.

Consider the implications of secret testing by Smartmatic-TIM. “Good” machines can be selectively assigned to some regions and “bad” ones to other regions. This can easily bias voter turnout in favor of some candidates. Not to mention the Comelec (actually the Filipino taxpayer) paying for substandard machines. “Good” and “bad” modems can likewise be deployed selectively, causing more transmission problems in targeted areas.

Claim: “180,640 compact flash memory cards purchased.”

Let’s do the arithmetic. Some 82,200 PCOS machines will use two memory cards each. So only 164,400 are needed. Since these cards are solid-state devices, their failure rates are extremely low, compared to the PCOS, which contain mechanical parts. Smartmatic-TIM bought 20% more memory cards than necessary. These extra cards, if loaded with false results, can be surreptitiously used to replace authentic cards.

Given these and other concerns, HALAL assesses the probability of success of Subsystem-1 at 80 percent. That is actually a generous figure.

(Continue to Part 2 and Part 3)

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