The Manila Times – Time to change Automated Election Law

By Nelson Celis | The Manila Times

Part 2

HOW/Why were the digital signatures for the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) and Board of Canvassers (BOCs) included in the amendment of RA 8436, or the Automated Election System (AES) Law of 1997? Was it just to simplify the transmission of election results by the BEIs and BOCs, or was it for the sake of impressing the electorates that the AES law was at par with any related legislation in First World countries? Was there any basis for its inclusion or was it just something imagined? Did the technical working group (TWG) of the Philippine Computer Society (PCS) consider its technical feasibility? Let’s answer these questions one by one.

First, the TWG reviewed all the project initiatives of Comelec in implementing the AES that started way back in the 1990s to 2004. It could be assessed that the Comelec did their very best in automating the elections in the ARMM elections twice and in their attempt to automate the national and local elections in 1998, 2001 and 2004. The 2004 elections could have been the very first nationwide automated elections, but the preparations were stopped as explained in Part 1 of this article. Hence, we were back to the conventional manual elections in 2004.

Be that as it may, one of the lessons learned in 2004 was the adoption of Verisign (now called Norton) technology delivered to Comelec by PLDT’s subsidiary, ePLDT, one of the members of the Mega Pacific consortium that won the bidding for the automation of the 2004 elections. Verisign was commonly used by local banks in providing authentication of internet banking users for almost two decades now. It is an information security method to ensure that the one transacting is not a bogus person. That is true in internet banking and so with our automated election system to authenticate the BEIs and BOCs transmitting the election returns (ERs) and certificates of canvass (COCs), respectively.

Here’s the big surprise. Would you believe that ePLDT trained the senior staff and IT people of Comelec in 2003 for a week on how to use the Verisign system in generating the digital signatures of the BEIs and BOCs? Yes, Comelec personnel are knowledgeable about digital signatures, and most of them are still there! And they realized that such procedure in authenticating where the transmission emanated would be a vital tool in eliminating fake transmissions from fraudulent counting machines.

Though not part of the bidding requirements then, the AES provider incorporated the digital signing in the AES for 2004 elections to be at par with any secure electronic transmission platform like the internet banking system. It was also an eye opener for the Comelec to understand the relationship of e-Commerce Law of 2000 or RA 8792 vis secure electronic transmission of ERs and COCs.

After cautious deliberation, the TWG took cognizance of the Comelec’s experience with digital signing. They further analyzed, why should the digital signatures be part of the amendment. Their discussion encompassed the relevance of BP Blg. 881 of 1985 which clearly clarifies that the actual signatures of the BEIs and BOCs be affixed in the ERs and COCs, respectively. Thus, the TWG logically compared these handwritten signatures with those of the digital counterparts based on RA 8792.

Hence, the amended AES law, RA 9369, stipulates in Sections 22 and 25: “The election returns/certificates of canvass transmitted electronically and digitally signed shall be considered as official election results and shall be used as the basis for the proclamation of a winning candidate.” Moreover, TWG made sure that the e-Commerce Law be highlighted in the amendment of RA 8436 and it was provided in Section 30 of RA 9369: “The manner of determining the authenticity and due execution of the certificates shall conform with the provisions of Republic Act 7166 as may be supplement or modified by the provision of this Act, where applicable, by appropriate authentication and certification procedures for electronic signatures as provided in Republic Act 8792 as well as the rules promulgated by the Supreme Court pursuant thereto.” With regard to the Supreme Court, it promulgated the Rules on Electronic Evidence in 2001 which provide guidelines that shall apply whenever an electronic data message is offered or used in evidence.

Thus, the intention of the law, and as it is now, is to represent the functional equivalent of the actual signatures of the BEIs and BOCs and that only digitally signed election results shall be the basis for proclaiming winning candidates. Technically, the election results in 2010, 2013 and 2016 didn’t have any digital signatures of the BEIs and BOCs. But since the Comelec interpreted the law that the “machine digital signatures” of PCOS machines were equivalent to the BEIs and BOCs signatures, none of the legislators who won from 2010 to 2016 asked why!…???

Going back to earlier questions. How/why were the digital signatures included in the amended law? What’s the basis? Is it technically feasible? The answer to all of these is…Comelec did it in 2003!

(To be continued)

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