the loaded dice : part 1

In this two part blog post I examine the faultlines and the legal issues surrounding Electronic Voting Machines. EVM’s like many technologies presents tremendous benefits, however we should be cognizant of its risks. My post while supportive of EVM’s calls for a review of its security procedures. I also call for routine risk assessments where incentives are created for finding flaws rather than cementing positions on the absolute “infallibility” of the technology. This post also makes a point as to election laws in India being unsupportive of claims of electoral candidates alleging EVM manipulation which heightens the need for independent examination, routine inspection and constant design improvement. The first part examines the background of EVM’s in India, the security concerns, and court cases regarding their legality itself.

Veerendra Pratap’s Paranoia

One of movies that I watched recently was the political drama Rajneeti. Towards the end I was disappointed having expected more from Prakash Jha. However, the individual performances of veteran actors Manoj Bajpai and Nana Patikar were consistently excellent. Manoj Bajpai when playing Veerendra Pratap, a political scion seeking to inherit his father’s legacy superbly portrayed a man drunk on ambition and scotch. Veerendra Pratap’s end is portrayed in the climax of the movie when he is snared by a political rival on the eve of election results and then subsequently executed. When the election results start coming in against his political party Veerendra Pratap is unable to accept them. He becomes suspicious and paranoid and feels himself to be the victim of a conspiracy. Here is when the trap is laid. It involves drawing out Veerendra Pratap to an abandoned warehouse by leaking information of a vote fraud being done remotely on electronic voting machines (EVM’s). Even though the movie portrayed the electoral results as an actual victory and the vote fraud as a pure play on the mind of Veerendra Pratap, issues of security and integrity of EVM’s are increasingly being thought about today.

India’s experience with EVM’s

EVM’s have been deployed on a large scale in India and the ballots in the last two general elections have been exclusively cast and counted on these EVM’s. Given this large scale deployment there have been reasonable apprehensions as to the security and the authenticity of holding entire elections by EVM’s. This is in keeping with a global trend of reproach and re-examination of EVM’s where several European countries have subsequently withdrawn EVM’s after enthusiastically embracing them initially. In India there have been longstanding demands by Politicians, Electoral Analysts and technologists to examine EVM’s. However, this has not been made possible due to the stringent legal regulations which mandate absolute secrecy as to the architecture of EVM’s in India.

The Indian EVM’s have been indigenously developed by Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL) and Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and are distinct in their architecture from EVM’s which have been developed and deployed abroad. The machines are relatively simpler and do not use cryptography for protection. On the contrary they utilize a system where simple software is burned directly on the chip of the machine (the micro-controller) and it cannot be read, updated, modified or deleted without physically removing the chip (which would destroy the machine). Further layers of security are in terms of seals and stickers on the machines as well as a chain of trust which is sought to be created by involving multiple electoral officers. However, it should be noted that in terms of the architecture of the machines they are relatively simple. The reason for this is the cost of the EVM’s ends up being lower as well as the absence of complex coding makes the operation less error prone. In a country such as India where large scale balloting is held in remote areas, these are definitive necessities. However there is a growing disquiet on EVM’s in India. It is only to grow with the paper authored by Hari K. Prasad, J. Alex Haldermany and Rop Gonggrijp titled as, “Security Analysis of India’s Electronic Voting Machines”. The authors have also put up a video for making their findings more accessible. Before this paper due to the strict legal regulations surrounding EVM’s its structure and architecture could never be independently examined. Requests to the Election Commission of India (ECI is the body which conducts polling in India) for providing the EVM’s were resisted on grounds that the security of the devices lay largely in the secrecy of its design. Legal Regulation which mandated absolute secrecy helped this posture of the ECI. Some of these requests were made by Mr. GVL Narasimha Rao who has published a book and runs a campaign against EVM’s at a website maintained by him.

Legality of EVM’s

The first case to challenge the validity of electronic voting machines was that of A.C. Jose v. Sivan Pillai. The case which was decided by the Supreme Court in 1984 held that since the Election Commission did not have any legal rules to implement an election by EVM’s it was without jurisdiction and bad in law. It is pertinent to note that the Supreme Court made no observation of on the efficacy of EVM’s and its merits/demerits. However much changed with time, technology slowly started to emerge as the panacea to India’s problems. Rules were made to enable the election commission to hold polls through EVM’s and subsequent legal measures to challenge their legality failed. In-fact in the recent case of Michael B. Fernandes vs C.K. Jaffer Sharief And Ors., the Court has given a glowing tribute to EVM’s when it stated that,”[t]his invention is undoubtedly a great achievement in the electronic and computer technology and a national pride.” The latest in these line of cases is the writ petition filed by Shri. V.V. Rao in the Supreme Court of India being Writ Petition © №292/2009. The petition was disposed off by the Supreme Court with the observation that the petitioner would be at liberty to pursue the matter with the Election Commission of India. Thereafter a chain of correspondences were exchanged between the petitioner and the ECI. The petitioner continued to claim that the EVM’s were susceptible to fraud and manipulation and the ECI continued to deny them on various grounds which included, (a) secrecy as a security procedures; (b) patent rights of ECIL and BEL as well as, © previous examinations of the EVM’s by two separate expert committees. ECI’s reply dated 29th March, 2010 sets this out fully. The latest in this line of correspondence is the letter dated 16th July 2010 from the Petitioner (V.V. Rao) to the ECI. What is curious is that throughout this correspondence the ECI seems to be agreeable only till the point of granting a hearing and soliciting views, it voices its strong and unequivocal resistance towards the petitioners demand for examination of the EVM unit on grounds that this would constitute reverse engineering.

It is evident that there is a cloud over the integrity and security of EVM’s. What is compounding this problem of trust is the posture of the ECI when it seeks to make statements to the effect that the machines are “perfect” and “infallible” and at the same time refuses to provide them for the purposes of independent verification. We as a nation are proud of the fact that we are the worlds most populous democracy and do not miss an occasion to remind our friends abroad of this neat number. However, before we proceed to boast we must examine and inspect our electoral processes. This becomes more pertinent given the recent ruling of the German Courts that EVM’s are unconstitutional. We also, finally have a scientific study on the security of EVM’s which casts suspicion on their security.This suspicion should be avoided by heightened examination and independent verification, for we are concerned with Ceasar and not merely Ceasar’s wife.

In part 2 I will discuss the law on election petitions which makes it imperative for the examination of EVM’s as well as the legal excuses used by the ECI to hold back EVM examination.

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