What to do with Miru deal

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Before the Holy Week break, a top official of the National Security Council (NSC) raised concerns and fears of potential “foreign interference” in our country’s upcoming May 2025 mid-term elections. Jonathan Malaya, NSC’s assistant director general, noted in particular the persistent cyberattacks from foreign sources” as reported by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

Quoting the DICT report, NSC’s assistant director general Jonathan Malaya pointed to hacking attempts from “foreign sources” as evidenced by the forensic investigations. These victimized not just private companies but mostly government agencies and offices. Malaya worries that such attempts to influence the outcome of the 2025 polls could be as “subtle as troll farms or disinformation” to sway the “public to a certain political thought” or as serious as outright hacking into electoral data bases or interfering with the counting of votes.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman George Garcia immediately sought to assuage the public that the poll body is ready and able to thwart such possible cyberattacks to disrupt the automated election system (AES) in the Philippines. On that same day the NSC aired this warning, Garcia reiterated the Comelec’s information technology (IT) is set to include additional security features in its hardware and software that will “ensure the protection against any cyberattack.”

The Comelec servers were breached by hackers who publicly released voters’ personal details online in 2016.

“Of course the readiness of our IT personnel matters much, coupled with our learnings from the past,” Garcia stressed.

At this stage, there is general public faith and trust in the leadership of Garcia and the rest of the seven-man poll body. However, the same faith and trust cannot be passed on to its new provider to handle our country’s AES next year.

A critical spotlight has been directed towards the Senate and House hearings that looked into the questions raised on the Korean company Miru Systems Co. Ltd. after it became the lone bidder that qualified the Comelec screening. The Miru Systems was awarded last month the P17.9-billion contract for voting machines that will be used in the May 2025 polls.

The Comelec proceeded with the award of the contract despite a pending petition that questioned the disqualification of Smartmatic Philippines Inc. from the same public bidding. In a petition filed with the Supreme Court (SC) in November last year, Smartmatic sought an injunction to stop the Comelec from disqualifying the company. The SC did not issue any restraining order but directed the Comelec to defend its decision against Smartmatic.

Smartmatic was the first AES provider of the Comelec that handled the maiden automated polls in our country during the May 2010 presidential race. Punctuated by glitches and other technology-related issues, Smartmatic went on to carry out two more subsequent presidential elections in 2016 and in 2022 and in the 2013 and 2019 mid-term elections in between.

When I asked him directly if he trusts Miru can do a better job than Smartmatic, the Comelec chief retorted: “Yes, Miru conducted five times the presidential elections in Korea. And no complaint was ever raised by losing candidates.”

Meanwhile, worrisome connections of Miru’s suitability, however, have cropped up to become the new Comelec partner that will carry on the AES. Despite efforts by Comelec officials and Miru representatives to justify their selection, their explanations only served to heighten existing doubts. The pressing question now looms – is Miru genuinely equipped to aid in conducting elections with integrity? The depth of these quandaries indicates a need for additional hearings to further scrutinize the matter.

The affirmation of credentials of Miru from countries that used their voting system like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq seem to add more causes for alarm rather than assurance. Congo, scoring a paltry 1.68 on The Economist’s Democracy Index, is among the least desirable countries to lend credibility regarding election technology. The troubling facts surrounding Miru’s clients such as Congo should compel Comelec to reassess the implications of their association with the company.

In the case of Iraq, 70 percent reportedly of voting stations put up by Miru had problems so that the strife-torn Middle East country reverted to manual count.

Miru’s involvement in the just concluded national elections in Russia strikes another sensitive chord. Their precinct count optical scanner, a collaborative endeavor with a Russian university, is integrally tied to the electoral process used to reelect Vladimir Putin – a leader whose victory has been met with wide international skepticism. Miru’s continued engagement with the Russian electoral system, as asserted in their own website, raises grave questions about international compliance and the integrity of their technologies.

Considering this backdrop, one must critically inquire: have any of Miru’s previous election involvements been verified by esteemed international observation entities? And indeed, how can we be certain that technology devised in Russia, a nation with a history of foreign electoral interference, will not compromise the vote counting in the Philippines?

Upon closer inspection, the situation surrounding Miru’s domestic operations becomes increasingly untenable due to its association with a local partner in the Philippines, St. Timothy Construction, a company it used as financial associate to meet our government’s bidding requirements. Such, however, aroused more suspicions on St. Timothy Construction with no track record related to elections.

These are the issues Kontra-Daya convenor former Caloocan City mayor Edgar Erice vows to elevate before the High Court. In a dzRH radio interview I heard yesterday, Erice urged his former Congress colleagues to press Comelec for a demonstration of the “prototype” voting machine of Miru, which it claimed is being fitted per Comelec specifications.

For an operation as sensitive and fundamental as ensuring the integrity of electoral processes, the involvement of a company with sordid issues presents a profound cause for alarm.

As one popular adage goes: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

The Comelec chairman has repeatedly emphasized the importance of maintaining a perception of integrity within the poll body. With the May 2025 elections just around the corner, the sanctity of the Filipino vote should always be the paramount concern to guide Congress on what to do with the Miru deal.

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