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Did we pay software firm extra P400 million for source code?

Commission on Elections Chairman Sixto Brilliantes Jr. continues to make fools out of Filipinos by announcing the other day that Smartmatic, Inc. and Dominion Voting Systems have settled their case filed in an arbitration court in

the United States that will result in the delivery of the crucial “source code,” the basis for the binary code that runs the ballot-reading machines. 

What Brilliantes had not announced, sources claim, is that Dominion agreed to the settlement and to release the code after he used Comelec funds–taxpayers money—to pay it the $10 million it had been demanding from Smartmatic. Brilliantes himself had told this writer as early as November last year of his proposal, and that he was waiting for Dominion’s reply.

“That’s really small, about P400 million, and we have that money,” Brilliantes told this writer. He explained in February that the money could be raised from the contingency part of Smartmatic’s contract, as well payables due from the firm, which is more than P400 million. “Kayang-kaya,” he said.

Whether that payment is legal or not, Brilliantes’ deviousness is in the fact that months after he offered the payment to Dominion, it is suspiciously only the other day that the settlement was made—a week before the elections.

This is Brilliantes practically telling the technology community in the country— which has been unanimous in branding the Smartmatic deal as anomalous and defective—to eat his shorts, to use that cartoon character Bart Simpson’ line. He will now stretch the election automation law to claim that he had legally complied with its requirement to make the source code available and open to any interested party.

It’s not his problem that it would require at the very least two months for a proper evaluation of the source code by computer experts.

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A bit of background to understand the issue, whose appreciation has been difficult because of its technicalities that Brilliantes often gets away with using his brilliant obfuscations:

Smartmatic, which undertook and will undertake the automation of the May elections, filed in September a case against the Canadian Dominion Voting Systems for several reasons. It had turned out—already a violation of bidding rules—that Smartmatic was merely a licensee for the machines and technology of Dominion for the automation. When Dominion claimed that Smartmatic violated the terms of its license, it withheld crucial technical support, and more importantly the release of the source code for the automation which would have helped the latter quickly fix glitches in the system.

The Smartmatic suit was actually intended to force Dominion to release the code to it. Dominion however had told Smartmatic and Brilliantes as early as August last year that it would do so for $10 million, which it claimed was what the latter’s breach of license agreements cost it.

The source code is the set of instructions programmers write which, when translated into the digital code—lines of zeros and ones—is executed by the computer hardware. The source code is crucial to the electoral machine’s integrity, e.g. that it will register in its tally a vote for Mr. X whom you actually marked in your ballot, instead for Mr. Y. A cheater for instance could have entered an instruction in the source code “that for every 10 votes for Mr. Y, add two for Mr. X.” The source code cannot be extracted from the digital code loaded in the machine, and has to be made available by the company owning it.

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The briefing given to the Manila Times editors and guests Monday by former Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman was quite revealing as it was enlightening. Even if the coming elections prove the automation’s success, our country will not be proud of it. The contract with Smartmatic was riddled with so many flaws, the system was proven inaccurate in so many tests, and shown to be vulnerable to tampering by the country’s top computer experts. Brilliantes has been brilliant only in fooling the media. To cite some instances of these:

• The Comelec chose Smartmatic as the contractor when it did not have the technological expertise for reading paper-based ballots, using precinct count optical scanning (PCOS) machines. Its expertise is in automation systems in which voters directly register their votes in machines, as in touch-screen voting machines. It was Dominion that had the technology and expertise for this. Smartmatic did not disclose this when it bid for the contract. It is astonishing that the Comelec disregarded the consensus of the country’s technology associations, even the recommendation of its Technology Advisory Council, not to enter into the P7 billion contract with Smarmatic.

• Several mock elections to test the PCOS machines showed that it didn’t’ have the accuracy the election automation law required. The percentage of errors was enough to significantly change the results. Comelec however managed to misrepresent these results, and claim that the machines were accurate. In one case, the machine over-registered votes for one candidate by 3 while under-registering ballots for another by 3. Smartmatic and Comelec, by adding -3 and +3, reached a sum of zero, and then claimed that the PCOS machine had zero inaccuracy.

• The memory cards (or CF or compact flash cards) on which the results for a precinct are stored could be easily tampered with, as these were not “WORM” cards. WORM—for write once, read many—CF cards would make the contents CF cards difficult to change. This in fact was incontrovertibly proven in the protest filed by congressional candidate Glenn Chong in the elections in Biliran. Examination of the CF cards showed many anomalies based on the memory card’s log, for instance that votes were registered even after the closing of voting.

• The system being undertaken does not require a process for validating that the digital code in a PCOS machine is genuine, i.e., generated by the source code.

And the big-picture issue: We spent P11.3 billion for the automated elections in 2010 and will be spending another P10 billion this year. By hgow much did it cut down the process of counting votes?

By twelve to 24 hours, computer expert Lagman said. He explained that it would have cost only a tiny fraction of those billions of pesos, and would have resulted in a more credible, tamper-proof system, if Comelec instead automated the canvassing of election returns, which takes 25 to 40 days, and kept the precinct counting manual, which takes only at most a day.