Computers can be hacked

Published by rudy Date posted on March 22, 2009

THERE are three automated systems being considered for the 2010 elections.

Two – the Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) and Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) systems – were pilot-tested in the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Field reports revealed anomalies and loopholes. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) never revealed its official report to the media.

The third, Open Election System (OES), even if it is better than the first two, as claimed by its proponents, was not pilot tested.

Based on these two points alone, automated elections should be deferred until we are ready for it, otherwise we risk massive problems never before encountered, which can even induce anarchy and instability.

Handwritten ballots

The OMR retains handwritten ballots which are encoded into computers at the precinct level.

The more dangerous is the fully automatic DRE system, as it uses a touch screen. The OES, proposed by the Service Group for National Legislation (Signal), also retains handwritten ballots.

Strangely, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), in a full page ad, endorsed the OMR-DRE, claiming it was a complete success in the ARMM, and arguing that it would solve election cheating – both grave misconceptions. A Namfrel official asked why the group’s name was placed in the ad and if the Namfrel board approved this.

Why would PPCRV root for something so questionable? It is a credible Church group. Is it because the group does not know the technical implications? Because of the anger of people on unstoppable election cheating since time immemorial, many have acquired a misperception that automation would cure our ills when it might just worsen them. They mistakenly equate clean election with automation.


Kimball Brace, head of US Election Data Services, a hacking expert, warned that US poll computers “can be hacked.” He added, “History has shown that the first time somebody uses a new piece of voting equipment, that’s the time that they are going to have problems.”

Brace cited blunders in the Florida 2000 presidential election in which Bush won by a “hair.” He said 40 percent of voters would be using paperless touch-screen machines (like our DRE) that … left the system “vulnerable to hackers.”

Paper trail

A Princeton University computer science professor, Edward Felten, demonstrated in a US Congress session how he could hack into “the machines and switch votes from one candidate to another.” Some US states use an optical scan system trail (like our OMR), which electronically tallies results and allows a paper trail, for double checking in the event of fraud or computer failure.

Filipinos are some of the best computer hackers and virus creators in the world, proven by the “love bug” which destroyed millions of computers worldwide in 48 hours. It was also a Filipino who penetrated the firewall-secured Pentagon website.

Let me play devil’s advocate to a dream of clean elections through automation. We may get rid of some analog election frauds (not assured), but we may create new and bigger digital ones.

Analog, digital fraud

Analog fraud is physical, such as flying voters or rigged ballot boxes or tampered returns. Digital fraud, which can be by far more extensive, means tampered databases, software, or digital election results, and proliferation of viruses.

Field reports in the ARMM reveal tampered OMR ballots, which can no longer be corrected and may be considered invalid. So one can just quickly tamper with or “over-mark” ballots of rivals to render them invalid.

Reports revealed that uneducated voters were coached inside the booth in the DRE, a very dangerous precedent. We are not ready for automation because we have not educated voters yet. What more poll personnel and watchers?

PPCRV argues that limited human intervention will result in clean elections. The very opposite is possible.

Transparency, security

There is an inherent conflict between transparency and security. Once you limit human intervention to achieve security, the system is less transparent and accessible. Once you give access to poll watchers to achieve transparency, you also give access to hackers and compromise security.

Hackers can manipulate the voters list on a massive scale by going into the central database. Knowledge of the software is critical for hackers. Viruses and program bugs can be spread. You suppress one type of cheater and induce more powerful ones.

Logistical nightmare

Nationwide automation is a logistical nightmare. The OES and OMR require computers at 10,000 precincts, needing 10,000 encoders who can still make encoding errors in spite of proper training.

The training program itself is massive in scale. Do we have time? This training should have been done yesterday for the 2010 elections. Computer breakdown or viruses can induce failure of election. Nothing beats analog at this point.

We are not ready for automation. And as Felten and Brace say, automation itself is questionable.

Signal says there is a wide gap between the political and the technical in automated election, which is the ingredient for chaos. Signal says it “harbors serious reservations about the capacity of the Comelec to implement a fully automated election system nationwide for the 2010 elections.”

Even Signal’s OES or the OMR, which are semiautomatic systems, have huge inherent weaknesses. The OES was never piloted. It may take two elections for the hackers to perfect their crime, but they are here right now.

Automation solves problems but induces bigger ones.

(Bernie Lopez is a freelance writer. He can be reached at–Bernardo V. Lopez, Philippine Daily Inquirer

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