THE Commission on Elections (Comelec) has announced it will not pay Smartmatic for the automated elections systems, or AES, that the software contractor is providing for the May 9 polls until it satisfactorily explains the breach in its data infrastructure.
The Comelec still owes Smartmatic P90 million for the AES software. But during a Senate inquiry last Tuesday, Comelec Chairman Saidamen Pangarungan emphatically said the amount will only be released “once we are convinced that Smartmatic is innocent about this leakage of data.”
Just days before voting day, we are once again confronted with serious questions regarding the integrity of the electoral process. It's the same questions that surface every time elections roll around.
This time the ruckus swirls around a Smartmatic employee assigned to test AES equipment in the Comelec warehouse last November. The employee, who has since been fired, admitted to the National Bureau of Investigation he had brought home a laptop from the warehouse and “shared his credentials to an unknown third person whom he met through Facebook Messenger.”
Last January 9, Smartmatic detected unusually high traffic in its system, and traced it to the employee's credentials. Five days later, the hacker's group XSOX emailed Smartmatic, saying it had infiltrated its network.
The AES provider promised to install stronger firewalls to prevent further breaches.
The vulnerability of the AES did not seem to raise enough red flags with the Comelec, which was content with tamping down the issue by reassuring that the incident will not compromise the May 9 polls.
It was only after the Senate decided to dissect the incident that the Comelec decided to take a more forceful action and stop further payments to Smartmatic.
The poll body and its systems provider may have had their ups and downs, but their relationship seems to have survived them all.
Smartmatic has been the Comelec's partner in automating the country's polls since 2010, supplying the vote counting machines and necessary software. Even when the Comelec purchased the company's machines for the 2019 midterm election, Smartmatic was still minimally involved, providing “technical assistance.”
Smartmatic's track record, however, has been far from pristine, despite its boast that “using our technology, election commissions from around the world have processed over 5 billion votes without a single discrepancy.”
Since 2004, Smartmatic's election technology has been used in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the United States. As in the Philippines, controversies have tainted its operations, particularly in Venezuela and the US.
Despite its spurious record, the Comelec continued to stand by Smartmatic.
In 2019, The Department of Justice ordered charges filed against the Comelec for allegedly changing the code in the servers in the middle of results transmissions during the 2016 elections.
The department debunked the Comelec's argument that the code change was cosmetic and did not affect the election results. It also dismissed Smartmatic's defense that it had the authority to make the change without clearing it with the Comelec since it only involved fixing a systems glitch.
The DoJ also called out Smartmatic and the Comelec for failing to report the change immediately after it was carried out.
The questionable change in the servers' code was one of the arguments presented by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in protesting the victory of Maria Leonor Robredo, his rival in the vice presidential race. Marcos said he was leading in the canvassing of votes before the code was changed.
His protest was eventually dismissed by the Presidential Electoral Tribunal.
Following the report of the hacking involving the Smartmatic employee, the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Center (CICC), an attached agency of the Department of Information and Communications Technology, did its own sleuthing.
In its report to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on the Automated Election System, the CICC confirmed that Smartmatic's operations have been compromised.
It is too late in the day to sanction Smartmatic. But nothing prevents the Comelec from finally severing ties with its favorite service provider immediately after the elections are concluded.
Blacklisting Smartmatic and barring it from bidding for future Comelec contracts would be a good start.
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