Wednesday, August 12, 2009

EVM hackers can steal ballots


EVM expose
Is electronic 'rigging' subverting electoral mandate?

By GVL Narasimha Rao

The debate over the unreliability of the EVM that raged over the last two months is reaching a crescendo as many new facts come to light, even as Election Commission officials continue to carp ad nauseam that the EVMs used by the Election Commission are infallible, without any substantive proof, whatsoever.

On the other hand, there is now enough verifiable and circumstantial evidence to show that there is something amiss about the EVMs. The true story of the EVMs is beginning to unfold and it would be a tragedy if the political parties do not get to the bottom of the truth about these allegations and apprehensions. The poll panel is betraying signs of nervousness as it has no convincing explanations to a number of emerging concerns and the political parties owe it to the millions of the voting public to investigate and arrive at proper conclusions to show that their votes have not been robbed by unscrupulous individuals and to restore the public faith in our voting system.

Shocking verdicts

As someone who has analysed and predicted many parliamentary and assembly elections in the past, let me add a new perspective to the raging EVM debate. The only two parliamentary elections where the pollsters in general have gone horribly wrong in India's parliamentary history are the Lok Sabha elections of 2009 and 2004. Consider this fact these are the only two national elections that were totally electronic.

In stark contrast, the Lok Sabha election results of 1991, 1996 and 1999 which were manual could be accurately predicted by most pollsters. For instance, my own Lok Sabha predictions for the Times of India and Doordarshan for all these elections were bang on target. (See box for these predictions and actual results).

That brings up the relevant question: Has the voter mood in the Lok Sabha elections that we were able to gauge very accurately until 1999 become so complex after the Election Commission made them totally electronic employing the EVMs?

Poll predictions vs. Actual results

* Polls by G.V.L. Narasimha Rao for Times of India/Doordarshan
Interestingly, we could accurately predict various assembly elections (held using EVMs) held between 2004 and 2009 general elections including the elections of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. How is it that the same electronic voting machines turned in voting results that we could capture accurately in assembly polls, but not in national elections?

Is it the case that these voting machines per se are reliable when they are properly handled (which explains why there were no problems in assembly elections), but have been tampered with in the Lok Sabha polls producing startling results both in 2004 and 2009?

Lest the cynics argue that my theory of "electronic rigging" in national elections based on this circumstantial evidence is a figment of my imagination and rubbish it on the promise that the BJP would not have performed creditably well in states like Bihar and Chhattisgarh in 2009 general elections if that were the case, let me substantiate my claims with some pertinent information and questions.

EC owes explanation

The Election Commission is less than truthful in claiming that the EVMs deployed in general elections are tamperproof, when its own technical committee led by Prof. P.V. Indiresan held otherwise. The Expert Committee in its September, 2006 report (points 3.6 and 3.7) recommended that the old EVMs should be upgraded with suggested modifications, testing and operating precautions to make them tamper proof.

Shockingly, of the 13.78 lakh EVMs deployed in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, only 4.48 Lakh are either new or upgraded machines, while as many as 9.3 Lakh EVMs (or over 2/3rd of all EVMs) deployed are old machines. The Commission has furnished this information in reply to a RTI query dated July 21 to V Venkateswara Rao, the main petitioner who filed a PIL in the Supreme Court on the issue. (Copy of the ECI reply enclosed)

New, improved EVMs were deployed in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and some UT's and all north eastern states except Assam. In all others states, old EVMs, which do not meet the technical specifications, were used.  Why is it that these new, improved machines were not deployed in any of the key Congress-United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruled states? Who were the persons responsible in making these decisions and what was the rationale in making the choice of states with the new, improved EVMs?

Curiously, while many states seem to have been selected following some alphabetical sequence, the UPA ruled states like Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Haryana, Maharastra and Tamil Nadu (which fall in the same sequence) have been left out systematically.
Naturally, the following questions arise and the EC is duty bound to answer them satisfactorily. What considerations guided the deployment of the old EVMs, more susceptible to tampering in all the states ruled by the ruling combine at the Centre? Why all the EVMs were not upgraded or replaced as recommended by the Expert Committee? Isn't the Commissions guilty of misleading the political parties and the public opinion that it's EVMs are tamper proof when it is fully aware of their limitations and shortcomings? All these serious questions warrant convincing answers from the Commission.

Latest statements from Commission officials reveal that they themselves seem to entertain doubts about the functioning of the old EVMs deployed in Lok Sabha elections. The Commission officials now say that only new, improved and 'certified' EVMs will be deployed for by-polls due shortly in Tamil Nadu where the opposition parties led by the AIADMK have decided to boycott by-elections. Does it not amount to admission of guilt that the old EVMs used in the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu were not reliable and prone to tampering?

'Stand alone' EVMs

Election Commisison officials have time and again argued that the EVMs cannot be tampered as they are stand alone machines without being part of any network and are not based on operating systems as the EVMs used elsewhere in the world.

That is an erroneous argument. The stand alone EVMs can be hacked on a selective basis; in any state, constituency or polling station of one's choosing. Granted, this cannot happen without tampering with the individual EVMs deployed for election duty at some stage of their handling in the manufacture or election operations. That brings up the relevant question as to who can actually be involved in tampering.

It may be difficult or even impossible to influence lakhs of government functionaries deployed for election duty to tamper all the EVMs. But, it appears that there are a number of private players involved in gaining access to the EVMs at various stages, starting from their manufacture to their operations and maintenance at various stages of elections. Evidently, they are a huge potential security hazard.

Role of private players

Election Commission officials now claim that the EVMs are tamper proof and this confidence stems merely from the certificates of authenticity given by their manufacturers namely the ECIL and BEL, both in the public sector. Is that a valid ground for unbridled optimism about their tamper proof reliability? Is there any way that the officers on election duty or political party representatives to verify that these EVMs are indeed not tampered with? The answer is a no.

In addition to the manufacturers, there are a number of private players and individuals who are engaged in handling these machines at several crucial stages. There is not much information available on who these people are, who hires them, what duties they perform, what process is adopted to hire them and what are the terms of their engagement?

Preliminary enquiries show that they include chip manufacturers, service maintenance staff, manpower suppliers, outsourcing agencies, transporters of EVMs etc., who have unlimited access to the EVMs. What prevents them from tampering with the EVMs at some stage of election operations? In some states, we found reports suggesting that the maintenance and EVM handling work has been done by people belonging to the ruling parties. Does that not give ample scope to these parties to manipulate these machines?

A few authorised, unscrupulous elements gaining access to the machines can play havoc with them. No one would even get a hint of such manipulation as most officials are completely ignorant of the technology manipulation possibilities. Experts allege that these manipulations are so simple and devious that these could be done even without any knowledge on the part of the operational staff engaged in such manipulations who will mistake these activities to be part of the operational procedures.

Most senior officials of the Election Commission and those engaged in the polling process at various levels seem blissfully unaware of the manipulation possibilities of the EVMs. Worse, ECI officials see any doubts raised against EVMs as attacks on their personal integrity.
But, in a country where the election commissioners are appointed owing to their known political affiliations and former election commissioners are rewarded with positions and ministerial berths for 'services' rendered, doubts are bound to be raised about their impartiality. It is the duty of the Commission to reveal all facts to show that it has little to hide.

The Election Commission has the responsibility to initiate a national debate to discuss all issues threadbare. In stead of addressing valid concerns, it has been asking everyone to prove that their EVMs are tamper prone. Granted, no tampering can be done without physically manipulating it. Experts are challenging that the EVMs used in the elections can be tampered if one has physical access to them and the commission is not willing to take the challenge. The Commission perhaps wants the petitioners to perform some magic skills in manipulating their machines without gaining any physical access.

In the wake of serious concerns and the emerging potential possibilities for manipulation at various stages, it is the onerous duty of the poll panel to demonstrate basis for their oft repeated claims that their EVMs cannot be tampered with and not anyone else. The Commission should take voluntary steps in promoting a healthy debate and remove all hurdles to restore public faith in a system that has been junked by most western democracies rather than attempt to muzzle all opposition by making unsustainable claims.

Political parties must demand accountability

Most political parties now suspect that something has wrong but appear woefully short in understanding the rigging possibilities of electronic voting machines. Most of them have nagging doubts about the tampering of the EVMs, but have not raised these concerns in an open manner for fear of retribution and ridicule. The Supreme Court in its order in disposing the writ petition on EVMs had stated last month that the issue raised are of vital concern and the political parties may approach the Commission to clarify their doubts about the EVMs.
At stake is not just the fate of the political parties but the sanctity of our electoral process and the essence of our democracy. Parties must vociferously raise their concerns in public domain and in Parliament and ensure that the poll panel is held accountable to the millions of its electorate and conduct future elections in a manner that enhances the confidence of the electorate and that of the political parties in their outcomes

(The author is a leading political analyst and a member of the BJP. Views expressed here are his own.)

-          Forecast    Actual
1996BJP+  188     189
-Congress+142     132
-Others      212     215
1998BJP+  252     252
-Congress+140     147
-Others     145      138
1999BJP+ 287      298
-Congress+174     135
-Others      77       105

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