EC defends arrest of engineer who exposed EVM flaws

Or is it witchhunt?

DNA / Sreejiraj Eluvangal / Thursday, August 26, 2010 1:45 IST

Two days after a seemingly innocuous announcement by the Hyderabad police of the arrest of a software engineer on charges of’stealing’ an electronic voting machine (EVM) from Mumbai, the case of Hari Prasad seems all set to give the Election Commission (EC) sleepless nights.

VeTA (Citizens for Verifiability, Transparency and Accountability in Elections), the NGO for which Prasad was working as technical coordinator, has called the arrest a witch-hunt by the EC even as opposition parties renewed calls for an all-party meet to discuss electronic voting.

The incident has also caught the attention of the world media, with many experts questioning the EC’s reaction to criticism.

Hari Prasad was part of a three-member global team that sought to prove that EVMs had their flaws.

The team needed an EVM for testing, but the Election Commission did not help efforts by failing to provide machines.

The team nevertheless managed to procure one, and that is why he was accused of stealing one from Mumbai.

From the last conversation I had with him, Hari is staying strong. They are putting pressure on him, but he has not revealed the name of the source who supplied it (the EVM), said Alex Halderman, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Michigan and one of the world’s foremost specialists on voting machine security.

Halderman had teamed up with Prasad and Dutch hacker Robert Valentijn Gonggrijp earlier this year on the invitation of an NRI association called ‘Save Indian Democracy’ and VeTA to examine the possibility of misusing electronic voting machines (EVM) in India.

Soon after last year’s national elections, the Election Commission had publicly challenged anyone to prove that EVMs could be hacked.

To their dismay, the trio found that the Commission was in no mood to give them one of the 1.3 million EVMs for testing, until an anonymous source supplied them with one.

According to the Maharashtra police who are interrogating Hari Prasad, the machine was stolen from the godown at Old Customs House in Mumbai. Hari was arrested on Saturday, soon after he gave a live demonstration of how EVMs could be pre-programmed to favour one candidate or party.

This is a case where the police action is obviously politically motivated. It is an attempt to intimidate us, Halderman says.

According to Halderman, the Indian EVM is no more tamperproof than any other machine invented by man and can be manipulated either before the election or after it, prior to counting. Indeed, the trio has demonstrated how equipment worth a few hundred dollars can be used to set up the EVMs to start favouring one candidate when the voting is on, or change the stored results after the elections.

It may have been a great device when it was invented in the 1980s.. But technology has come so far ahead that there is no way to establish the confidence that the machines are behaving correctly, says the professor.

There probably are a million people in India who can do it, he says, if they can have access to the EVMs before or after the elections.

While paper ballots too may be tampered with, especially after the elections, they are impossible to be tampered with during the months or years that pass between one election and another.

In the last five years, many countries have moved away from electronic voting after these security threats have been exposed, he added.

Meanwhile, the opposition too highlighted the issue in Parliament on Wednesday, including the arrest. Some 13 party heads had submitted a request with the Election Commission in June to call an all-party meet to discuss security issues around the EVMs.

We are deeply concerned about the repeated apprehensions about possible EVM malfunction. Instead of arresting, the EC ought to have heard the matter and examined it, said BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad.

The government is in a state of denial on the basic problems we are raising about the EVMs, commented CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat.

In an official statement, the Election Commission defended Prasad’s arrest.

While the Commission has every respect for technologists and is always open to suggestions for improvement in the voting system, it cannot overlook any illegal act, especially the theft of a public property like the EVM given in its custody for conduct of elections, it said, adding that the police was carrying out its own investigation independent of the Commission.

VeTA president and election expert GVL Rao, however, contested the stand. This is not the first time that an EVM has gone missing from the ECI (several dozen EVMs were stolen in the past according to ECI’s own response) but never in the past was such drastic action taken, he said, adding that by its own confession, the Commission found out about the missing device only after it was shown on TV.

This brings out the shocking reality that the EVMs are completely unsafe in their custody, he added.

Quote: EVMs may have been a great device when invented in the 1980s.. But technology has come so far that there is no way to establish the confidence that the machines are behaving correctly,

Alex Halderman, assistant professor of computer science, University of Michigan.
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2 Responses to EC defends arrest of engineer who exposed EVM flaws

  1. Manu says:

    Join The Facebook group “EVM is Evil – Hari Prasad a Hero” to save Hari Prasad and Save Indian Democracy.
    Raise your voice. Don;t be evil and Don;t support evil. Visit the web site.

  2. abhijeet says:

    Although India’s EVMs have a simple design that avoids many of the problems found in other direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, they are still vulnerable to a wide range of attacks. New classes of attacks have been discovered since the time the EVMs were introduced that render many of their security assumptions obsolete. Therefore, we conclude, after listening to the arguments of the panelists, that India’s EVMs do not today provide security, verifiability, or transparency adequate for confidence in election results.

    We urge the Election Commission to explore other forms of voting that are suitable to the Indian context and that do provide adequate transparency, verifiability, and security. Other democracies have adopted and then abandoned DRE voting as science’s understanding of election security has progressed. Our research community has been involved in this process around the world, and you are welcome to draw on our collective experience and expertise as you see fit.Washington DC, Aug 12, 2010: The following letter signed by top security experts around the world was written to S.Y. Quraishi, Election Commissioner of India after a panel discussion on Indian EVMs held at USENIX conference on Aug 9th, 2010.

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