Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Fool-proof EVMs in 2014 elections?




Wisdom dawns at last on the poll panel


A Surya Prakash

It is satisfying to note that the Election Commission of India has finally agreed to the demand that electronic voting machines must issue paper receipts to voters. This is needed, because EVMs are not tamper-proof

After standing on false prestige and even becoming vindictive against those who suspected the integrity of electronic voting machines, the Election Commission of India has finally acceded to the demand that the machines must issue a paper receipt to voters.

The commission's decision — made known to the Supreme Court in February in response to a petition filed by Mr Subramanian Swamy, president of the Janata Party, that EVMs be scrapped — is a major victory for all those who were campaigning against electronic voting machines because the latter lacked transparency.

Mr Swamy had argued that EVMs must be scrapped because they are not tamper-proof. They could be retained only if there was transparency via a paper trail, so that every voter knew that his vote had been registered correctly. Even Japan, which started the process of electronic voting, has reverted to paper ballots. Many other countries have also fallen back on paper ballots for the same reason.

The commission, which had stubbornly resisted the demand for either scrapping EVMs or introducing a paper trail, began to display some reasonableness in the matter after Mr Swamy moved the Supreme Court and a Bench comprising Justices P Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi declared that it would hear the matter on a priority basis, so that the proceedings concluded before the next parliamentary election.

The commission signalled its readiness to consider the plea when it told the court last September that it was contemplating "foolproof methods" to ensure that EVMs were not misused or tampered and that it was consulting technical experts and political parties in this regard.

Finally, some weeks ago, the commission informed the court that it was willing to incorporate the paper trail in order to remove doubts about the integrity of EVMs. The commission told the court that it had done a trial of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail in EVMs in 180 polling stations in various States. This system could be incorporated after it received the opinion of an expert committee that is examining the issue. The commission proposes to use the paper trail first in some by-election and later incorporate the same in the general election. It has already asked EVM manufacturers to fine-tune the paper trail system.

The debate on the integrity of the EVMs was started three years ago when a group of public spirited NRIs headed by Satya Dosapati of New Jersey organised workshops in Delhi and Chennai under the aegis of 'Save Indian Democracy' and invited national and international experts to speak about the vulnerability of these machines to hacking and fraud. Among them was Till Jaeger, a lawyer who got the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany to ban the use of these machines in that country; Rop Gonggrijp, a computer hacker from the Netherlands who demonstrated on live television how the machine could be hacked, and Alex Halderman, professor of Computer Science, University of Michigan, USA, who is an authority on electronic voting security. The most prominent Indian expert at these workshops was Hari Prasad of Hyderabad, who spoke about the ease with which EVMs could be tampered with and on how, irrespective of voters' preferences, the machine could be pre-programmed to produce a result.

The argument against EVMs is that the machines can be tampered with at the manufacturing stage or at places where they are stored in State capitals. The biggest drawback of these machines is that, since the vote count happens inside the machine, there is no way by which the result can be cross-checked. Given the extent of corruption and fraud in various facets of governance in India, it would be foolish to discount the possibility of EVMs being manipulated by political parties in power or by pliant election authorities.

Mr Hari Prasad demonstrated the vulnerability of these machines to the Election Commission some months prior to these workshops. However, such was the commission's fear of the truth that it abruptly stopped Mr Prasad and his colleagues midway through their demonstration. Later, the commission became very vindictive and even launched criminal prosecution against Mr Prasad and had him arrested in August, 2010, for demonstrating the EVMs' vulnerability to fraud on what the police alleged was a stolen machine! In fact, the alleged theft of the machine itself constituted an indictment of the commission. It showed how EVMs could be taken out of the commission's custody and, thereafter, even tampered with. The commission learnt of the so-called theft only after Mr Prasad demonstrated on television how the machine could be hacked.

Thus, the Election Commission resorted to punitive action against a whistleblower, whose only intention was to protect the sanctity of the electoral process in the world's largest democracy.

As a public body which has the responsibility of superintendence, direction and control of elections, the commission must function in a people-friendly and transparent manner. It must first convince us that those who man it are democrats who are willing to see and listen. It must also convince us that it has no political axe to grind, although all the commissioners are appointed by the Government of the day through an obviously partisan process.

As former Chief Justice of India MN Venkatachalaiah often says, democracy is not just about statistics — "there are over 700 million voters in India". The members of the commission must demonstrate their deep and abiding commitment to democratic ideals, and their non-partisanship should be beyond doubt.

Given the fact that the commission was headed at one time by Navin Chawla — a man indicted by the Shah Commission for conduct "unbecoming of a public servant" during the Emergency — the attitude of the Election Commission against Mr Prasad was no surprise. When persons like Mr Chawla, whose commitment to democracy is suspect, are appointed Election Commissioners, it is no surprise to see the commission running away from the truth on an important question which concerned the integrity of the electoral process and, as a consequence, of the Election Commission itself.

In any case, now that Mr Chawla has retired, the commission must redeem itself in the public eye. Since it has, in principle, accepted the argument that a paper trail is a must if EVMs are to be used, it must gracefully withdraw the criminal proceedings against Mr Prasad.

It must also speed up the technical clearances needed to give voters a paper receipt when they vote in the next Lok Sabha election. 2014 is a high stakes parliamentary election and the Election Commission is duty-bound to ensure the sanctity of the results of that poll. The commission must act with efficiency and grace.



Related article

2009 elections EVM rigged??


Elections were held in 5 phases across India. The last phase of polling was completed on the 13th of May 2009. The counting of votes was to begin on the 16th of May 2009.

Prior to the election the Election Commission had ruled that the election will be held in 5 phases with each phase dealing with voting in geographically discrete locations. Furthermore, to avoid any potential effect of the voting pattern in a given phase over that in subsequent phase(s), Exit Polls were formally disallowed and no interim counting of votes would be conducted or permissible prior to the completion of polls in all phases. Thus by virtue of the decisions of the Election Commission the final counting of the votes was to be undertaken and completed on the 16th of May 2009. Consequently Election Commission had specifically given the impression that it had formally disallowed any preemptive counting of votes including sampling either through Exit Polls or by downloading EVM data.

The data on the final votes polled would be expected to be uploaded/made available on the http://eci.nic.in/candidateinfo/frmcandidate.aspx on the 16th of May 2009. The nature of these data would concern names of the candidates, individual party affiliation, name of the constituency, the voting phase, votes polled by each candidate. It is only a matter of serendipity that, in order to obtain the information on the names of candidates their constituencies and party affiliations that on May 6th 2009 Prof Madhav Nalapat and Dr. Anupam Saraph went to the site and must have been amazed to discover the results of the votes compiled for all five phases although the election/voting were yet to take place in phase iv and v. It thus appears that either this was mischief by some hacker or that some data was actually uploaded. The site was visited again on the 7th and 11th with the same result. In conclusion, contrary to the rules set up by the election commission, not only was the voting data for the first three phases available but surprisingly data for the two subsequent phases (before actual polling took place) appeared.

Could this have been a mistake? Some software mixup? Some sort of interference from interested parties? On the 11th they downloaded the data again to find that

  1. The same "votes polled" data was still available
  2. Barring a few candidates, the data was the same for most others
  3. The data on votes was available for 8023 candidates out of 8070 for 543 Lok Sabha Constituencies well before the completion of the election process

It will be interesting to note the actual voting dates for different phases and the names of the constituencies, candidates and parties, the information for which the original exercise was undertaken by Prof Madhav Nalapat and Dr. Anupam Saraph.

The extraordinary feature of this discovery concerns availability of data at a time when the events had yet to take place such as votes for elections and vote counts yet to be held prior to the date of their availability on the http://eci.nic.in/candidateinfo/frmcandidate.aspx website. To verify the validity of this information the concerned website was continuously monitored and enquiry made with the Election Commission about possible irregularity in the vote counting and revealing processes. Surprisingly however the "votes polled" data disappeared on the 15th and did not reappear as one would have expected on the 16th, or immediately thereafter, i.e., the date of formal declarations of the results by the Election Commission. Eventually ECI seems to have uploaded the final data on June 3rd 2009. It is at this point that the June 3rd data were compared to those appeared on May 6th, 7th and 11th May. This comparison clearly shows that the actual trends preempted for all phases were mostly the same. This raises a serious question as to how was it possible to predict/prempt the voting trends for phases i to iii for which the voting had been completed but neither exit polls nor immediate counting were allowed/implied/undertaken/completed. It is even more surprising that the voting trends for the phase iv and v for which the elections had yet not taken place preempted/published/allowed/implied/undertaken/completed were similar to those from the data published on June 3rd.

The sequence of these events preceded by the nature of rules and regulations set forth by the Election Commission as a priori for the conduct of the election process for Lok Sabha 2009, India, were not followed in practice and grossly violated in form of publication of voting data on the ECI website, completely contrary to the premise of sanctity presumably guaranteed by the Election Commission. Indeed it almost makes one feel that the final result of the election was electronically preplanned. Is this possible? With all the promises made on the fool-proofedness of the security of the poll data, its storage as well as retrieval process, would it have been possible to prematurely access, download and manipulate the data contents on the EVM's? It is clear that EVM's need to be manually/electronically accessed to retrieve the data but it does not appear impossible to transmit to modify existing data. Furthermore the actual process of downloading contents from EVM's involves a "control unit" that retrieves the information/data from the "ballot unit" and reads the stored votes for manual compilation. While it is possible to manipulate data during manual compilation, this seems to be fraught with presence of too many individual operators involved in the final counting process. In contrast, however, if the control unit has a program that reads of "votes polled" that were downloaded to it from an excel spreadsheet, not unlike those that were available in coded form between May 6th and 11th the number of votes for each candidate could be manipulated.

In conclusion there is a strong possibility/probability that the election process was/could have been rigged such that specific group of candidates/political parties were favored to garner majority votes irrespective of the actual votes cast by the electorate. This is not only possible in India but it is well known that a similar situation affected the vote counting process during the US Presidential Elections in 2004 in the State of Florida.

According to Brad who quotes this article by Atul A. the EVM's used in India can be readily rigged by a Computer Scientist. With so many ifs and buts, therefore, a time has come to undertake independent inquiries by the Supreme Court and CVC and two stay the results of the last election.

--Devlem 14:57, 8 June 2009 (UTC)



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