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India’s election 2019: Ghosts in the E.V.M?
Kanchan Basu7/6/2019 11:01:12 PM
Irrespective of who 'Won' or 'Lost' in the 2019 Indian General Election, the single biggest loser is the 'Election Commission of India' (E.C.I.) and the respect commended in the eyes both 'Voters' and 'Parties'.
Even as it grappled with allegations of millions of missing votes, inaccurate names in voter rolls and the overt bias of allowing the 'Ruling Party' to violate the 'Election Code of Conduct', the single biggest issue were reports of widespread malfunctioning and mishandling of Electronic Voting Machines (E.V.Ms.).
What makes matters worse is bow the E.C.I. has chosen silence and insularity when confronted with such 'Reports'.
The 2019 Election isn't the First time that aspersions have been cast on the security of Voting machines in India. Ever since their introduction in 1988, there have been murmurs about the possibility of them being 'Hackable'.
The line of opinion between E.V.M. skeptics and E.V.M. proponents had traditionally been a sharp one.
While some have stuck to saying E.V.Ms. are just not trustworthy and should simply be done away with, their opponents have branded these skeptics as at best technologically challenged and uninformed, and at worst, outright conspiracy theorists.
At any rate, no Political Party had taken the issue up. Commentators on both sides of the line remained on the fringe of mainstream Political discourse, waging their own intellectual battles. But in 2019, for the first time, the line has blurred and Political Parties are coming together to raise serious concerns about E.V.Ms. Furthermore, they're petition the Supreme Court of India to look into the matter:
Alongside the E.C.I., which defends E.V.Ms. as infallible, those who support the use of E.V.MS. have relied on Three Crucial Points:
1. E.V.Ms. aren't networked and aren't reprogrammable and therefore not 'Hackable'.
2. Skeptics have failed to demonstrate a working hack of E.V.Ms.
3. If E.V.Ms. could be manipulated, the why do 'Ruling Parties' lose Elections?
"If a machine can be built by humans, it can be hacked by humans as well", says Prabir Purkayastha. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding Editor or 'Newsclick.in' and the President of the 'Free Software Movement of India'.
"We have to understand what hacking an E.V.M. means," Purkayastha continues. "If one has physical access to the machine the votes can be changed by either replacing the original controller with a compromised one or by reprogramming the existing one. And that would qualify as the machine having been hacked".
Prabir Purkayastha is no conspiracy theorist. In fact far from it.
In a recent essay carried on his website, he lambasted a show put up by an 'expert' who claimed to have full knowledge of E.V.M. hacking, and called it a "Theater of the Absurd".
The episode he was referring to was 'Press Conference' organized in London on 21st January, 2019 by the Foreign Press Association and the India Journalist Association of Europe where a man by the name of Syed Shuja was to demonstrate how E.V.Ms were hacked.
Syed Shuja turned out to be a charlatan who showed no back and instead the audience to a series of unbelievable and badly scripted cloak and dagger stories involving high profile murders and deaths. He claimed his team had stopped the Bharatiya Janta Party (B.J.P.) from hacking the 2017 Delhi State Elections and ensuring a fair win for the Aam Aadmi Party (A.A.P.).
He then said his team was killed in a shootout, but he escaped to the United States with a bullet wound.
The show was such a disaster that the organizing bodies - the Indian National Congress (I.N.C.) which had its leader Kapil Sibal present at the show, and the Aam Aadmi Party (A.A.P.) which has been E.V.M.-skeptic for a long time - immediately distanced themselves from Sayed Shuja.
The London fiasco hit the skeptic camp hard right before the 2019 Elections. Bolstered by Shuja's flop show, the E.C.I. set in motion plan to seek legal action against E.V.M. skeptics creating yet another roadblock to independent examination.
What the E.C.I. however, refuses to acknowledge is the fact that Sayed Shuja's failed attempt notwithstanding, their refusal to allow an open and public audit is what allows the skepticism to breed. After all, the main reason there has been no public demonstration of a working hack comes not from the machines being foolproof, but from the E.C.I's refusal to organize a hackathon allowing for an open security audit.
The E.C.I.'s second line defence of the E.V.Ms. was saying that the controllers in the machine were One Time Programmable (O.T.P.) - meaning that once the program to collect and tally votes was stored in the machines, it couldn't be changed. And this, in turn, means that once the machine's working has been demonstrated to Polling Agents, the machines would remain true to their intended purpose all through the polling and counting.
But this claim seems to be falling apart under closer Security by experts and scholars.
Responding to Right to Information (R.T.I.) petition, the E.C.I. said India's Voting Machines are manufactured by Two Government Owned Companies: Bharat Electronics Ltd. (B.E.L.) and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. (E.C.I.L.).
The Microchips in the controllers, however, were procured from NXP Semiconductors, a Dutch Company.
Contrary to the E.C.I.'s claim, as pointed out by R.T.I. researchers, the Company's website says that the controllers can come with FLASH Memory - which in lay terms means they can be reprogrammed.
Citing National Security and intellectual property clauses, the E.C.I. and the manufacturing Companies refused to identify the exact kind of controller being used - in effect not denying that FLASH could have been used in some or all of the Machines.
The only argument that works in favour of the E.C.I. and the E.V.M s. is the point that if the Machines are hackable, why do Ruling Parties sometimes lose? Wouldn't they always 'Win' if there were a way to ensure it?
After all, just Months before the National Elections, the B.J.P. lost a series of State Elections. That does speak to the neutrality or general fairness of the Polls and the machines.
"I don't think mass rigging [using the Machines alone] is as yet possible", Prabir Purkayastha says. "It is a mammoth effort. Someone somewhere [in the E.C.I.] would have leaked such a grand plan".
Not all Political Voices are convinced.
Speaking to members of his Nationalist Congress Party, veteran Indian Politician and multi-time Central Minister Sharad Pawar hinted at a larger conspiracy saying: "The Congress winning the Elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh raised doubts in my mind. It was a way to ensure victory in the National Elections".
While the E.V.Ms. being hacked or fixed - whether in toto or in select Constituencies - is up for speculation. But where the E.C.I. discredits itself and its handling of the E.V.Ms. is in the response (or lack thereof) it has given to skeptical voices.
For example, iVote , a Citizen Journalism project run by 'Newslaundry.com' to monitor voter obstruction, noted that curiously enough, in all but one case of voters pressing one button and the 'Vote' going to a different candidate, it was always the B.J.P. that benefited.
While this might have been a glitch in the Machines, the E.C.I.'s refusal to actively engage with such complaints from Voters put it under a cloud of Political bias.
"There's way too many glitches happening with E.V.Ms. and the whole process of how they are being used and deployed to not be concerned", Harsh Shukla, an analyst working with 'iVote' explained. "Malfunctioning of E.V.Ms. in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Bihar etc. led to major delays in Voting and Voters had no option but to leave. Then there is the major issue with 'Ghost Votes' and 'Missing Votes' which is now coming to light".
An investigation by 'The Quint' showed serious discrepancies in the number of Votes Polled and the number of Votes counted in 373 Constituencies - which is over 68%of the total Constituencies in India.
According to report, Constituencies like Kancheepuram, Dharmapuri, Sriperumbudur and Mathura have more 'Votes' counted in the final tally than those that were 'Cast'. The difference is in Tens of Thousands of Votes.
Furthermore, several 'Tens of Thousands' of Machines have gone missing and the E.C.I. has no record of where they are.
According to a series of R.T.I. applications filed by information activist Manoranjan Roy with the E.C.I. and the Machine manufacturers B.E.L. and E.C.I.L., in a span about 15 years, 9,64,270 Machines have gone missing or are unaccounted for. The E.C.I. says every 'Machine' has a uniquely identifiable and trackable serial number.
The obvious question is where are those 'Machines'? Could they not be rigged and used to replace the ones used in 'Voting'?
The E.C.I. , of course, has remained 'Silent' on these questions.
E.V.Ms. and their alleged tempering became such a big issue immediately after the 2019 Elections that a delegation of senior leaders from all major Opposition Parties met and asked the E.C.I. to 'Tally' the Electronic Vote Counts with the paper trail provided by the Machines.
The E.C.I. didn't budge.
Not until the Political Parties petitioned the Supreme Court of India and the Supreme Court directed the E.C.I. to do so did the Commission relent. Even then, the E.C.I. only 'Tallied' only 1.19% (20,625 out of 17,30,000) of the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (V.V.P.A.T.) enabled E.V.Ms.
"This sampling is grossly insufficient - anything below 20% of randomized tallying in each constituency won't be a true test of the accuracy of the machines," said Anupam Saraph. Mr. Saraph , a Professor of Computation and Technology at the Symbiosis Institute of Computer Research in Pune, has been investigating the use of E.V.Ms. and the Biometric Databases and their effect on Electronics for several years.
According to his research, E.V.Ms. are stealing Elections and entire exercise of 'Tallying' is simply creating an illusion of accuracy.
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