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A foolproof election counting system

Elson Elizaga .

CARLO Florendo is an IT expert who works for Alpha Opensource, an IT firm in Quezon City and Baguio that designs software for enterprises. Florendo is 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 is the author of the following article, which I have slightly edited for this column:

In 2010, when Smartmatic became the contractor to do automated election systems in the Philippines, UP computer experts criticized the design of Smarmatic’s counting system. Some of these experts came from the Department of Computer Science. 

These experts were not simply teachers but multi-awarded industry practitioners; they had experience working with gigatons of data, including deploying 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 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 good technology.

The problem is not Smartmatic but the Comelec. The Comelec, up to this day, is run by people ignorant about automation, encryption, and network transmission technologies.

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 seven-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, FTP is not even mentioned in whispers!

And there can be no bottleneck if the systems are designed properly because only numbers and identification codes are being transmitted. Even if a billion of these messages were sent, the network traffic should not exceed the size of the last two or three episodes of the Game of Thrones series.

Obviously, Jimenez was coached by the IT group of Comelec. He seemed to be pretending to be an IT guy at the presscon. But we IT practitioners could read between the lines and realized that the Comelec had come unprepared. It means our taxes were not spent properly. With billions of pesos in the budget and three years to prepare, things should have been smoother now. They seemed worse.

Now, the problem was that the results were not immediately published. What caused everyone to doubt the integrity of the election was the seven-hour delay in producing the election results.  As of this writing, only 96.3 percent of the results has been transmitted. The results should have been known quickly. This 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 could have leased an encrypted line from the telcos for data-transmission backup. I’m sure they did not do all these.

And now, this is the pasabog: 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: the BLOCKCHAIN.

If the Comelec guys in charge of automation have not even heard of BLOCKCHAIN, they should resign and go back to the Stone Age. BLOCKCHAIN is the basis of crypto-currencies, yes. Many doubt cryptocurrencies, but BLOCKCHAIN will make cheating in the vote-count impossible. Totally 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 chairman should push BLOCKCHAIN. The current Comelec chairman 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 implementor. 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.

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