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EVM tampering: The EC's refusal to host a ‘no-holds barred’ Hackathon is baffling

Ashutosh | Updated on: 29 May 2017, 17:37 IST

In a democracy, elections are the biggest celebration of the people's will. They provide the common man an opportunity to express his will and choose his leaders. 

The credibility of democracy depends on the credibility of the process of elections. It has to be above suspicion and all efforts should be made to preserve and protect its integrity and transparency.

It is in this context that the role of the Election Commission becomes very important. It is the responsibility of the EC to hold free and fair elections. That is possible only if the EC's independence is not questioned - it acts as a referee and not as a player.

Its principal duty is to provide a level playing field to all the stakeholders and give equal opportunity to the ruling party and to the opposition as well.

A matter of integrity

In the last few months a serious doubt has crept up in the minds of the people about the veracity of the election process, which in turn has put a question mark on the role of the EC.

The reasons for the doubts are the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) that are used for casting votes and certain incidents related to them. This has invited debate on whether the continuance of EVMs is the right way to go as it is not tamper proof and whether polling should be held through the old method i.e., ballot papers?

Opposition parties are demanding the latter and have made a representation to the President of India.

To satisfy the Opposition's anxiety, the EC, through the media had hinted that it might organise a Hackathon where anyone may walk in and play with the machines and prove if the EVMs can be tampered.

But all of a sudden, the EC has now refused to acknowledge that it made any such offer.

This has enraged political parties.

Most strangely, it has invited all political parties for an ‘EVM challenge’, in which political parties will be given four hours to prove whether EVMs can be manipulated or not.

But there is a catch. No one will be allowed to open the machine and only visual inspections will be allowed. Experts will be challenged to tamper the machines only through wireless devices.

A concerned political class

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was the first one to raise serious doubts about the technical perfectness of the machines and had questioned the veracity of the EVMs after machines in Bhind and Dhaulpur had seen voting only for the BJP.

There were also complaints from several assembly candidates who had said that in their own booths they got votes less than the numbers of their family members.

Very soon, other political parties also pitched similar concerns. Under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, 13 parties requested the President to revert to ballot papers.

The EC had then called a meeting of all the parties. But now AAP, and other parties also are extremely disappointed by the stubbornness of the Commission by its refusal to host a Hackathon, somehting which could have been the right platform to test the ability of the machines.

The conditions the EC is laying down when it comes to testing EVMs raise doubts about its integrity

Instead, the EC is laying down conditions which make the event more like asking thieves to rob the house from the front door where all safety measures are in place while the back door is open.

All political parties except the CPI(M) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have refused to take part in the challenge. AAP has a few questions –

1. Why is the EC running away from "organising an open and no-holds-barred Hackathon" as was hinted earlier? In a Hackathon, there are no rules and regulations. It's free for all. Hackers are invited to "test the security of machines, using any tool available, which is meant to understand any loophole or weakness in the system" which can be corrected. Such a Hackathon is called ethical hacking which is an internationally recognised endeavour to make a system or machine more reliable and robust. 

2. Why is there insistence on only a visual inspection? If anyone wants to hack a system they will study the machine in and out and accordingly apply their tricks. Hackers can't be prisoners of the EC's terms and conditions.

3. AAP MLA Saurav Bharadwaj has demonstrated on the floor of the assembly that EVMs are vulnerable. He had changed the motherboard, fused a new secret code and the EVM started voting for the BJP.

This live demonstration clearly established that the machines can be changed as the hacker desires. The EC has no explanation as to how such an attempt can be thwarted. It just says that if the motherboard is replaced then it is no longer "EC mandated EVM" which is nothing else but a jugglery of words and satisfies no one. It has only notional value, not a real one. It is a linguistic approach to a technological issue and is absurd. 

4. The EC, in its press conference, had also said that a minor change or tampering in the motherboard will make the EVM dysfunctional and it will stop working. If it is so, then in a live Hackathon it will be proved beyond doubt that no attempt to manipulate the voting machine will succeed. 

Can anything be more reassuring to the people of India than this? But the EC's refusal for any such test raises more doubts than it erases.

Trust issues

Seventeen globally recognised technologists and engineers, who are well versed with the functioning of the voting machines, have also concurred with AAP's stand.

They have written a letter to the EC stating - "Challenge should allow individuals to tamper with an EVM. They should be provided design documents, test descriptions and results for each generation of EVM currently in use, as an insider would have access to these. Such document will help design a trust model and enable an understanding of the EVM security from the perspective of a trust model, identifying threat actors and missing security controls."

Given the global practice of such a Hackathon and the view of the global experts, the EC's refusal is baffling.

The EC is a constitutional body and it has a constitutionally mandated duty to hold elections in a free and fair manner and there should not be any doubt in the veracity of the electoral process. It has no obligation to anyone except to the will of the people and to the constitution.

Unfortunately, the EC's action does not give any confidence to the people of India. In fact, it has only served to intensify the doubts. This does not bode well for Indian democracy.

The writer is a member of the Aam Aadmi Party.

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

First published: 29 May 2017, 17:37 IST