Are you spying on us? AES Watch asks Brillantes

The Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch) today dared Chairman Sixto Brillantes, Jr., of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to clarify that its P30M counter-intelligence fund (CIF) was not intended to spy on IT groups and election watchdogs critical of the Comelec-purchased Smartmatic PCOS technology and the way the automated mid-term elections were conducted.

The citizens’ watchdog issued the demand even as it asked Comelec along with the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on AES to secure all PCOS machines, CCS software, ballot boxes, and other election paraphernalia needed for auditing the now-tainted mid-term election system and subjecting it to forensics scrutiny.

Nelson J. Celis, AES Watch spokesperson, issued the challenge following Brillantes’ own admission about the existence of the intelligence fund – after budget realignment approval by President Benigno S. Aquino III lastFeb. 20. If it is true that the fund was sought – quoting Malacanang spokesperson Abigail Valte – to spy on “the activities of certain groups, individuals, and technology experts” suspected of sabotaging the elections, then all the more must Brillantes explain whether such intelligence operations are targeting AES Watch, its affiliate organizations, IT groups, other citizens groups, and anti-fraud movements that have been openly vocal against the mismanagement by Comelec of the automated elections since the beginning, Celis said.

Celis, the 2012 Most Outstanding Electronics Engineer in IT and former president of the Philippine Computer Society (PCS), demanded the Comelec chairman’s explanation following the latter’s oft-repeated accusations against the automation mismanagement critics as “election saboteurs” engaged in an alleged “conspiracy” to bring about an “election failure.” Brillantes last week also threatened to “unmask” the leaders behind AES Watch and sue them for election sabotage – considered a major crime punishable with more than 20 years’ imprisonment.

“Brillantes doesn’t have to ask the President for millions of taxpayers’ money to conduct surveillance on us because AES Watch activities, studies and reports have been open and transparent from day one even before Comelec contracted the foreign company, Smartmatic, to supply the PhP 7.2Bn PCOS voting technology for our elections,” Celis noted. In fact, the Comelec chairman had always been invited to meetings and forums where he consistently promised to “look into the issues” and “initiate reforms” in the Comelec, Celis added.

Unable to refute our critical findings on the conduct of the automated elections, Brillantes has besmirched the title of the head of a constitutional body by resorting to threats and intimidation in order to silence critics of Comelec and Smartmatic, Celis said. “The Comelec chief has gone beyond the bounds of decency and fair play. He’s using his powers not only to send chilling effects on the IT community and election watchers but now, using alleged intelligence funds, he is out as well to attack our civil liberties,” he said.

Bobby M. Tuazon, policy study director of CenPEG and co-convener of AES Watch, said if the Comelec chairman is looking for leads indicating plots to cause election failure then he doesn’t have to go farther. “The removal by Comelec and Smartmatic of all major safeguards and security features of the poll automation system, the repeated non-compliance of election laws, the systematic and widespread glitches, the highly irregular and arbitrary decisions on the RMA, vulnerable CF cards’ physical transport to the NBOC and the premature proclamation of election winners that have cast doubts on the credibility of the election results are what make an election failure if not sabotage,” Tuazon said.
“Who among the elected and losing candidates from the senatorial to the local level would know how many votes had they really garnered in this election? Or if the ranking of the senatorial candidates and party list groups accurately reflect their true votes?” Tuazon asked.

The scope of the independent probe of the elections that AES Watch has sought and now backed by many groups including CBCP leaders should begin with an investigation of Comelec and Smartmatic, Tuazon also said.

“After wasting billions of pesos on an untrustworthy machine benefitting a foreign company, millions of taxpayers’ money is being spent to spy on and intimidate IT experts and election watch groups now being faulted for their tireless vision to make elections credible,” Tuazon added.

Another AES Watch member, Atty Melchor Magdamo, a former Comelec legal consultant who blew the whistle on the anomalous secrecy folder deal in 2010, proposed that the “probe should begin with the question: Why were the major safeguards disregarded and removed –independent source code review, installation of the industry prescribed digital signatures, voter verification and the WORM (write-once-read many) CF cards up to the unconscionable expenses on the unbundled election paraphernalia, warehousing and the PCOS purchase itself.”

“There should be accountability here otherwise we will be sending a wrong signal to the people and the youth of this land that to err in Comelec is just human and to forgive is divine,” Magdamo mused.

Other members of AES Watch also asked Comelec to stop compromising its independence as a constitutional body by asking President Aquino to approve additional budgets of the poll body such as “intelligence funds” in the guise of realignment.

Christian Monsod, former Comelec chairman, on the other hand said in a press interview that intelligence funds are a source of graft and corruption “because it is liquidated with a mere statement that it was used for the right purposes.”

The AES Watch, a broad citizens’ election watchdog composed of 40 organizations, filed on May 3 a Petition before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) against Comelec through the Philippine government for violating the right to vote. Comelec’s non-compliance of election laws and the defects of the automation system compromised citizens’ right to vote and sovereign expression, under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), said the 34 individual petitioners led by former Vice President Teofisto Guingona, Jr.

BRILLANTES EXCUSE A FABRICATION

In a related issue, AES Watch member Dr. Rene B. Azurin said Brillantes Jr. has finally admitted that a whopping one out every four clustered precincts in the country “experienced problems on election day”. As usual, however, Brillantes blamed the telcos for the massive and unprecedented transmissions failure, which he calls “hitches”, saying, “It is not the PCOS that’s defective. It is the heavy traffic.” He criticized the telecommunication companies because they “only covered around 62 percent of the country.”

Actually, as telco engineers observed, traffic from the PCOS machines was quite tiny and well within the capabilities of the country’s telcos to handle easily, Azurin said. It was also noted that Comelec’s traffic was handled through a dedicated virtual private network, called a VPN, and not mixed with regular data and voice traffic. There would therefore be no reason why the inability of the PCOS machines to transmit their results could be blamed on “heavy traffic” as claimed by Brillantes.

Azurin said “this latest statement from the ill-informed Brillantes is yet one more fabrication peddled to the Filipino public in an attempt to justify what AES Watch has called “a technological and political disaster.” In Brillantes’s world, of course, the Comelec can do no wrong, he said.

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