Was 'malicious software' placed in recalled CF cards?

By RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 28 2010 01:23 AM | Updated as of May 28 2010 09:37 AM

MANILA, Philippines - An international election observer disputed statements from poll automation contractor Smartmatic that the compact flash (CF) cards recalled just days before the May 10 elections were 100% cheat proof.

Former National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) executive director and international elections observer Telibert Laoc disputed Smartmatic vice-president for Asia-Pacific Cesar Flores' claims before the joint congressional canvass committee for president and vice-president, that the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines were sure to not read or honor any malicious software inserted when the recalled CF cards were reprogrammed due supposedly to programming glitches.

Laoc noted that the 3rd party certification of the PCOS machines by Systest showed the PCOS machines' firmware (or software installed in the machines) were not verified.

Laoc said this means it would be possible for anyone to insert malicious software that could pad vote results from the May 2010 elections since the system is not fool proof.

But while Laoc could not say for sure who would be responsible for the possible infection of the CF cards, if at all, he asserted that the abrupt recall of the CF cards just days before the election certainly caused a big damage on the credibility of the country’s first nationwide automated elections.

Laoc has been observing the proceedings at the joint committee’s work in the Batasan Pambansa since day 1. He was a local member of the delegation of the US-based National Democratic Institute, which, in March, said the Comelec had not done enough to boost the credibility of the polls.

Focus on old questions

For the last 2 days of the joint committee’s work, the committee members just focused on old questions about the accuracy and security of the automated election system.

On Thursday night, it canvassed 5 of the 278 certificates of canvass (COCs) that would pave the way for the proclamation of the new president and vice-president.

Earlier Thursday, the committee spent over 1 hour discussing whether it should subpoena and study all 76,000 recalled CF cards for signs of tampering.

Smartmatic's Flores had previously told them that the PCOS machine software would not allow it to read any tampered CF cards.

House Speaker Prospero Nograles Jr. wondered how Smartmatic was able to address the problem so quickly.

“Doon nag-umpisa. If they didn’t reconfigure 8 days before the election, we won't have any problem given the fact that Smartmatic, in its public statements, said that it will take 3 months to configure PCOS machines, and then suddenly, it took them 48 hours to retrieve and deliver to 76,000 precincts,“ he said.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, meanwhile, said: “Subpoena 76,000 flash cards retrieved by Smartmatic and ask Comelec to submit an audit log of PCOS machines and create a technical committee to study audit logs of the PCOS machines. Did Smartmatic subcontract to IT companies? And if it did, what were the subcontractors that handled it? We want them stated into the records so if there's need for it, we’ll summon them to determine the integrity of those they did.”

Political operators at work?

Sources have told ABS-CBN News that some technicians who handled the reprogramming of the CF cards could have been employed by political operators to insert malicious software that could pad votes. The CF cards are said to be the brains of the PCOS machines.

ABS-CBN News has had no way to verify such a claim by sources, but the allegation has made the rounds of political circles.

While committee co-chairs Nograles and Enrile have gone to great lengths to remind committee members that the panel’s main task is to canvass the votes and not to investigate electoral fraud, the panel still ended up taking up questions about cheating since it goes into the matter of ascertaining the authenticity and due execution of the COCs.

Lawmakers wanted to be sure that the COCs were based on authentic and untampered fruits of the automated election system.

Cagayan de Oro case

Aside from the CF card recall, other serious debates during the early hours of the 2nd day of the canvass were the matter of the CF cards and election returns found in a dump in Cagayan de Oro.

Senator Aquilino Pimentel blew his top at the explanation of Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal of the incident, saying the Comelec was trying to protect its own people.

Larrazabal told the body that the CF cards and ERs found in a dump were those that were not claimed by the political parties. Some 30 copies of ERs are printed per precinct for dissemination to political parties, among others.

Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento then responded by saying that the Comelec has ordered an investigation into the matter.

Larrazabal said the ERs were actually stolen from Comelec officers.

“The ERs referred to were ERs not claimed by political parties. Not all were claimed by representatives of political parties. Those were the documents found. Not all 30 ERs were claimed, like 5 weren't claimed, but 25 were given out. They were stolen from the office of election officers after the counting,” he said.

Pimentel moved to strike the response off the record, saying, “I accuse Larrazabal of trying to protect those who had a failure to protect the ERs. The Comelec has a tendency to protect its own kind, I think you're trying to do that.”

Sarmiento said the Comelec had created a committee to investigate the incident, and that it issued an order relieving the election officer of Cagayan de Oro pending an investigation.”

Speak in layman's terms

Meantime, Laoc advised information technology (IT) experts appearing before the committee to “laymanize” their language, noting the non-tech savvyness of the committee members may be causing the circuitous arguments.

Over at the gallery, there were fewer members of the audience, with a few people caught sleeping out of boredom.

The joint canvass committee meeting was supposed to start at 1 p.m. but started almost an hour late due to the tardiness of the committee members. However, the meeting had fewer breaks.