MANILA, January 27, 2004 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Notice the quotation marks in the above headline. This is not a warning issued in the Philippines regarding our coming May 10 elections. This is the title of an article in one of America’s leading and bestselling magazines, GQ (Gentlemen’s Quarterly), in its issue of last November 2003.

In that candid assessment, Los Angeles-based journalist Mike Gray reveals that electronic voting equipment can be "programmed" by the manufacturer to fix n election in favor of certain candidates. Hello. The subhead of the article says: "The next time you step into a voting booth, you may find a computer behind the curtain. Be afraid. Be very afraid."

Gee whiz, I’m scared already. If they’re worried about their electronic voting machines in the US – what about those newfangled doodads imported by our Commission on Elections from South Korea, the home of the horrible $4.2 billion LG Card Company scandal in which that country’s biggest credit card company went belly up?

The scandal hit LG Card’s creditors to the tune of five trillion won – hurting 10 banks and six insurance firms. The bankrupt card firm, a unit of South Korea’s second biggest conglomerate, the LG Group (your TV set may be made by them), is in much deeper trouble. Its debt exceeds its assets by 3.24 trillion won.

If they can’t count in South Korea, how can automatic counting machines manufactured there be regarded by our Comelec as A-1, or completely reliable?

It’s not merely GQ which is concerned about the easy manner in which such machines can be tampered with. If you’ll recall, the International Herald Tribune (January 19) ran a strongly-worded editorial: "The Betrayal of U.S. Voters" (already quoted in this corner last week).

In that hortatory piece, the IHT Editors declared that "most immediately obvious is the problem of voting technology . . . As now discredited punch-card machines are being abandoned, there has been a shift to electronic voting machines with serious reliability problems of their own."

As that daily, published worldwide, pointed out, "Many critics, including computer scientists, have been sounding the alarm: through the efforts of a hacker on the outside or a malicious programmer on the inside or through purely technical errors, these machines could misreport the votes cast."

Sanamagan. The Mike Gray article in GQ – citing the flawed November 5, 2002 elections in Atlanta (Georgia), incidentally the home city of CNN – quoted an expert, Professor David Dill, a Stanford University computer scientist. Dill declared: "A lot of bad stuff happened in Georgia. The machines weren’t working very well, and the programmers had to do some last-minute software patches on all 22,000 machines in the state. That’s a bad situation. They didn’t have time to retest the software."

What about those automated counting machines so dearly beloved of Comelec Chairman Ben Abalos and his six commissioners?

Not only did we never had a chance to test them, but the software hadn’t arrived yet from South Korea before the Supreme Court wisely struck the deal down. Why the "delay" in delivering the software? It’s good that I’m the gullible, not the suspicious, type. Otherwise I might have jumped to the unfair . . . er, conjecture that the Korean manufacturers needed a list of the qualified candidates for the Presidency, Vice Presidency, etc., before "completing" the software.

Gray disclosed in his GQ exposé that Diebold Election Systems had sold the State of Georgia the 22,000 DREs used in the 2002 election. Diebold is not some fly-by-night corporation. Gray notes that "the new touch-screen ballot works something like an automated teller machine, and in fact one of the major suppliers of electronic voting equipment is Diebold Incorporated, a leading manufacturer of ATMs."

Gray conceded that the DREs supplied by Diebold had "impressive advantages" such as "they are chad-free, the results are available instantly, and, like ATMs, they can be programmed to speak your language".

"However," he avers, "electronic voting requires a leap of faith. Not one person in a thousand has any idea what actually goes on inside the circuits of an ATM, yet we touch the screen and take the cash with casual confidence in the bookkeeping. Since counting votes is arguably more important than counting money, one question immediately comes to mind: When I touch the square for ‘Abe Lincoln,’ how do I know the computer didn’t actually store my vote under ‘McClellan’?"

Sus, if you vote for GMA, how can you be sure the new-fangled Korean automatic counting machine wouldn’t "give" that vote to FPJ, Ping, Raul, Brother Eddie, or Gil?

In the Philippines, where things go wrong more often than go right, especially during election time ("I wuz robbed!"), can we put our trust in those machines?

When the Supreme Court last January 13 nullified that P1.3 billion contract of April 15, 2003, for the supply of at least 2,000 ACMs (Automated Counting Machines) by Mega-Pacific Consortium, that decision may have saved us from sleepless nights worrying about who will really be elected President in May. I’m not saying the ACMs were intended to be "pre-programmed" for you-know-whom – but you’ve seen how they’re so worried in high-tech America.

In low-tech RP, what do you think?

* * *

Professor Dill is widely regarded as "an expert in the field of computer verification". This means "the science of figuring out whether a system is doing what it’s supposed to be doing".

He believes not only that the DREs "are vulnerable to being rigged but that it would also be relatively easy to insert a corrupt ‘Trojan Horse’ program that would alter a whole state election - say, Georgia‘s."

Dill’s colleague, David Jefferson of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has an even more sobering take: "Almost certainly 1 or 2 percent . . . of all votes cast nationally on a particular vendor’s equipment could be switched without detection, changing the outcome of many close races across the country, including even the presidency."

What should bother us is the very real possibility such a "Trojan Horse" micro-chip might be inserted in the machines, enabling an outside hacker with the code in his or her possession to switch names in the machines "without detection". Multiply this by hundreds of hackers, and you have a surefire election victory for the anointed "one".

"An attack," the author Gray underscores, "would most likely take place at the vendor’s factory where the machines are assembled and programmed."

Jefferson explains that "by far the easiest mode of attack is to tamper with the software while it is in development." In this scenario, Gray says, "a single corrupt programmer at work on the operating system could insert a code that would shift a few votes here and there on a random basis. Jefferson says it would be virtually undetectable."

Anyway, since it is the Comelec which decides election protests, and the next venue for appeal is the slow-moving Electoral Tribunal, everything could be "over" in a wink if "flawed" machines are utilized in our May elections.

The High Tribunal wisely nixed the idea entirely. Will it stay nixed?

"The roster is almost a who’s who of computer-science-department heads and associates from M.I.T., Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Princeton, Cal Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Purdue, Berkeley and Penn State – all leading technologists who are alarmed by what they fear is sloppy engineering encased in a shroud of secrecy," the GQ article declares.

Gray warns that "if you try to find out anything about the inspection process or how the machines work, you’re met with the answer, ‘It’s proprietary, we have to keep that secret.’ Professor Bill says that the manufacturers’ obsession with secrecy is understandable. If a competitor steals the operating software, it could be a commercial disaster. Unfortunately, this need for security means that nobody is allowed to see the source code other than the original programmers and the people at the independent lab who certified it."

I think the Comelec should go, full blast, into preparing for manual balloting this May – alas, the old-fashioned way. We’ll still have to "perfect" those "new" electronic machines, before we use them disastrously, and I’m afraid that won’t happen before this election. It’s too late to force them through.

C’mon. Let’s be practical. Let’s go.

* * *

The Customs officials who permitted the 19 container-vans of imported chickens to be smuggled out of the port of Batangas are potential "importers of death". Each container allegedly held 25 million kilos of dressed chickens – and these (no matter how the government insists that only "live" chickens are dangerous) could at this moment be spreading the deadly bird flu.

In any event, the sudden deluge of chickens imported from dubious sources overseas could result in a panic among our population. Our own local poultry-growers could face bankruptcy if an alarmed consuming public were to "boycott" chickens entirely. See what mischief those corrupt Customs officials have created?

The shipment was supposed to consist of chickens from Canada and the United States, but had come here by way of the port of Kaohsiung, in Taiwan. Six of the 19 containers which vanished from Batangas have already been found "empty" in Navotas, Metro Manila. This surely means those doubtful chickens are already on the market. Who knows whether they really "came" from the US or Canada, not Thailand or Cambodia, or Viet Nam? The Taiwanese, who smuggle drugs, may not be above a chicken switcheroo.

The bird flu "terror" is rapidly escalating by the day. Six have already died in Viet Nam. One has just been confirmed dead in Thailand. One is admittedly down with bird flu in Indonesia, probably dead by now. Another case has been confirmed in Cambodia. Pakistan has just reported it has one case.

Seven countries have already been affected by this death-dealing disease. Are we going to be the eighth? No thanks to our Customs crooks and the venal "importers" who could not be found at the fictitious address they indicated. They should go to the lethal gas chamber if people begin dying here. They may not even get there. They could get lynched.

What bothers me is an earlier sketchy report that 2,000 containers could "not be accounted for" by Customs. This amazing report came a week ago. What did those "missing" containers . . . well, contain? Chickens? Shabu? Peking duck? Contraband of various sorts? The explanation given, if I recall, is that they were "lost" by the computers. Gee whiz. Nobody commits a crime in this country anymore. Losses are blamed on computers. Nobody’s guilty, except a machine. Which brings us back to the May election. Will we still bring in the machines?

As for the Customs mess, what are we to do? Smuggling by the hundreds of container vans has been going on for the past three Administrations, or even earlier than that. One "businessman" has frequently been mentioned with regard to containers being spirited out of Customs warehouses, or from ship to shore. He has never been arrested. Nor have his Customs confederates ever been brought to book.

Don’t ask me for "proof". Just seek, and you shall find.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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