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The Manila Times - The election results data outage

News & Interviews
15 May 2019

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

THE Commission on Elections (COMELEC) has been enamored with the automated election system (AES), viewing it as a silver bullet solution against the ills that marred the manual elections.

The machine won’t cheat, can’t cheat, say some quarters. Yes, that is not disputed. But a machine is manmade and the programs used to run it are written by humans. Local source code reviewers, however, swear that they didn’t see a thing that appears to be a cheating mechanism — well, at least in the portions of the source code that they reviewed.

The use of the automated election system gave birth to a host of other problems, mostly technical in nature.

It is the fourth time that the same system was used. But the conduct of elections on May 13, 2019 was marred by vote counting machines breaking down or malfunctioning (two to three times more than similar incidents in 2016 national and local elections); low quality markers and ballot paper causing bleed-through; corrupted SD cards (the data storage module used with the vote counting machines) reminiscent of the 2010 CF card fiasco; and the malfunctioning voter registration verification machines which caused delay of voting in pilot areas. The most glaring and worrisome problem was the more than seven-hour period during which the public was kept in the dark about the results of the elections due to the failure in transmitting the election returns from the vote counting machines to the transparency server, or distributing the election results from the transparency server to the various recipients.

“This is not a transmission problem,” COMELEC spokesman James Jimenez was quoted as saying. Then he said that the problem was in the program that pushes the data from the transparency server to the different media outlets. Isn’t pushing the data from one point to another data transmission? Well, the transmission may not be going through the air waves but it is still transmission or conveyance of data from a source to a recipient.

There are so many components in the automated election system through which the data flows. From the vote counting machine the electronic record of the election returns are transmitted to three targets: 1) the city/municipal canvassing and consolidation server (to which the vote counting machine is assigned); 2) the COMELEC’s central server; and 3) the transparency server. However, all transmissions go through what is referred to as the “transmission router.” In reality, the “transmission router” is not a simple device, but is a network of computer servers and network devices. What program is Mr. Jimenez referring to? Wasn’t the same program used in the previous automated elections? Isn’t this the election results transmission system (ERTS) or a component program thereof? Wasn’t the ERTS source code reviewed? Wasn’t it tested? Didn’t it go through the review and certification by the international certification entity, Pro V&V?

The COMELEC’s central server continued to receive transmissions from the vote counting machines during the transparency server outage. This may be an indication that the ERTS was working.

But if the problem lies in “pushing” the data from the transparency server to the media server, shouldn’t the transparency server have received data from the vote counting machines just as the COMELEC’s central server did?

The vote counting machine generates the election return in a specific format. Prior to transmission, the election return is encrypted and digitally signed. When the encrypted election return is received by the transparency server, it undergoes the process of decryption and conversion into another format. The newly reformatted election returns are then packed into a file and hash-coded before distribution to the various recipients. Hash coding is a technique of generating a data file’s fingerprint to ensure integrity.

Was it in the process immediately described above where the problem occurred? Was the program that executes the process reviewed, tested and certified?

The outage spawned fear, uncertainty and doubt among stakeholders. Fear that someone might have tampered with the results. Uncertainty because election stakeholders didn’t know what was happening. Doubts raised the question of protecting the integrity of the election results.

After seven long hours, media outlets finally received election returns from about 90 percent of clustered precincts. But where did the results come from if the vote counting machines had ceased to operate?

What was the specific problem identified? Who identified the problem? How was the problem resolved? Who resolved the problem?

As the COMELEC proceeds to the canvassing and consolidation of election results for the senatorial and party-list contests, more questions have been raised by stakeholders. Is there anything else that could be done aside from assurances by the COMELEC with regard to the integrity of the election results collected by the transparency server? What can be done to prevent the same from happening again?

The problem illustrates the need for the COMELEC to be more transparent, especially with the automated election system generated data. This is precisely why the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) came up with the Open Election Data project. A Namfrel-developed website was offered as a platform that would have hosted all election-related data, and analysis of the data sets could have been crowd-sourced. Analyzing the data could lead to discovering potential problems which could then lead to solutions that would help prevent the problems from occurring.

The COMELEC owes the public an explanation, BIG TIME!