26 October 2005

An encounter with Venezuela's electoral chief Jorge Rodriguez

London 20.10.05 | A friend called my attention a few days ago to a closing keynote speech "Biometric voter authentication - one voter - one vote" that was to be given today by Jorge Rodriguez, President, National Electoral Council (CNE), Venezuela, in the Biometrics 2005 Conference & Exhibition. So I got on the phone and called the organizers of the event to request permission to ask a couple of questions to Jorge Rodriguez in a gag law free environment. They were most cordial and certainly very helpful. After chatting to Mark Lockie I learned that Rodriguez would travel to the UK on Monday, so the agreement was for me to draft a couple of questions to be sent for approval, by both Mark and Cogent System representatives, given the technical nature of the conference. Everything was done according to plan, but then yesterday I saw Jorge Rodriguez on Venezuelan TV. Called the organizers again to communicate the news and not until 2PM today did I receive confirmation that Mr. Rodriguez would attend (his presentation was at 4.45PM).

Jumped on my bicycle and made my way to Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre. I asked one the ladies at the registration booths for Mark; having been told that he was extremely busy I decided to go for a cup of coffee and sort of hover around the entrance to catch Mr. Rodriguez on the way in. Only few minutes had passed when Mark called me and since I was just across the street I got back quickly to meet him. To be frank it gave the impression that he was actually threatened by my presence, not because I could physically harm him or anything but, probably, due to the information that some people may have given about me. One of the things that surprised me was a remark of his along the lines of "oh Cogent Systems knows about you..." I expressed my doubts regarding the feasibility of Rodriguez making it on time, unless traveling in private jet, to which he assured me that he was already in the country practicing his spiel. Anyway I gave him assurances that I was not there to create any problems or disrupt in any manner the conference. On the contrary I only wanted to ask the previously forwarded questions. Luckily he let me in.

Got into the third floor were biometrics latest stuff was in display in different stands. As I walked into one of the corridors I heard a group of Venezuelans saying "hay que estar mosca porque hay un tipo que viene a buscarle peo a Jorge" [we must be watchful for there's guy coming to have problems with Jorge (Rodriguez)]. Quite a fame, eh? I thought about telling them that I was actually the troublemaker but that would have ruined the surprise factor. Anyway as I was talking to a friend Jorge Rodriguez in the flesh approached me, introduced himself very politely and said "Aleksander Boyd? I understand you want to ask me some questions in the Q&A session?" I said indeed. "That's not a problem" he said. "Great, I shall see you in there then" I replied.

The presentation started. Rodriguez gave abundance of technical facts about the way in which the whole electronic voting system was implemented in the country and commented that his background in psychiatry has served him very well to maneuver in the highly polarized political arena of Venezuela. Laughter. The bidding process -to acquire the fingerprints machines- was intense, according to him. Not only had the CNE purchased the machines but in fact the technology behind it, read source codes, software, algorithms, etc. He said that 34% of the votes of the recall referendum were audited. Furthermore the audit process, he argued, was public. By 2006 the CNE shall be completely independent in technological terms, affirmed Rodriguez, by which time the council will have the fingerprints -both thumbs- of the entire electorate (+14 million people).

I reckon the Cogent representatives were not expecting to be informed before an audience comprised by industry peers that there were no more contracts to be had in Venezuela. In any case the Q&A session came and some more technical questions were asked.

My first question was:

1) Given the characteristics of the Olivetti "gaming ware" (game machines model MAEL 205) produced originally for lottery purposes and utilized in various voting processes by Venezuela's Electoral Council, which allow bidirectional communication at all times between terminals and remote servers, and the subsequent findings that the said terminals were in constant communication with servers, how could Mr. Rodriguez guarantee that the results produced in any given process are effectively a true representation of the electorate's will?

Jorge Rodriguez's reply:

We asked Olivetti to design, especially for us, the software and source codes that were to be used by the machines, he replied. Thus 9.200 machines were audited before the political parties and the international observers and no proof of fraud or vote tampering was found. Encryption codes utilized to transmit the data guaranteed the secrecy of the vote.

Unfortunately, owing to time constraints, I did not get to ask the second question, but since Mr. Rodriguez asked me afterwards for it to be sent via email, I shall post it here:

2) Fingerprint reading machines were purchased to Cogent Systems. Reports reveal that the use of these machines introduced abnormal delays in the voting process of the recall referendum of August 15 2004. The fingerprint database that was to be correlated and added to the electoral register has not, to date, being presented to Venezuela. In view of the existence of a publicly accessible database containing the political tendencies of the entire Venezuelan electoral register, would Mr. Rodriguez or Cogent representatives care to explain in what ways has the gathered data been utilized?

I would like to conclude by publicly thanking Mark Lockie, his colleague Allison, Mr. Robert Gailing from Cogent Systems and CNE's director Jorge Rodriguez for having kindly accepted my request and questions.

To be continued...