Representational photo | PTI
Representational photo | PTI
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The soul of a democracy is in our vote. Every Indian over 18 years of age can vote. So far, we have believed that what we vote is what is counted. Election after election, we have voted in large numbers with this implicit comfort. Yes, there were stray incidents through the decades of ballot box stuffing and rumours of EVM rigging. But none have been serious enough to cause us to question the election process.

But now, for the first time, India faces a serious and looming threat from outside its borders in the form of Xi Jinping’s China. Wars of tomorrow will not just be fought in mountainous terrain but also in the digital domain – we are moving from kinetic to algorithmic warfare. We have seen past alleged attempts by Russia, to state just one example, to maliciously intervene in the 2016 US Presidential election campaigns to influence voting behaviour. Such intentions now come armed with never-before capabilities. The manipulation of the actual voting process is but a half-step away.


Also read: ‘Ballot manipulation, unholy nexus’ — why high court scrapped Gujarat minister’s election 


From ballot to EVMs

For a long time, India’s electoral process relied on the paper ballot. There were three problems with the use of paper. First, ballots could be stuffed by rogue elements. Second, the process of counting the paper votes took long. And third, it was expensive – printing and transporting ballot boxes cost money.
That is when India introduced Electronic Voting Machines, or EVMs about 20 years ago. All one had to do was to press a button to cast one’s vote. No more ballot stuffing. Results came in hours rather than days. EVMs could be moved easily. Since they were reusable, the costs across elections were also reduced.


Also read: UK failed to investigate if Russia meddled in Brexit, full inquiry must take place, say MPs


EVMs vulnerable too

Time, however, does not stand still. The same EVMs that once provided the assurance of free and fair elections in India, are now the biggest vulnerability in the face of an external aggression. While the EVMs are manufactured in India, the device is a black box. No one knows what hardware and software lies inside – other than the Election Commission and the government-controlled manufacturers (Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd). The chips and the code are an opening for a cyber superpower like China to exploit. In fact, with the introduction of VVPATs, or voter-verified paper audit trail, there is now an added vulnerability because there is a manual transfer of data, along with information about and images of contesting candidates, from a laptop to every EVM prior to an election.

It is urgent for us citizens to worry about the machines that are central to our democracy. Not all chips are made in India. Not all code is tamper-proof. No longer can other countries be trusted to stay away from our elections, given the rising stakes in international relations. For the first time in generations, all Indians ought to be concerned about their vote and ask, “Am I certain only the vote I cast will be the one that will be counted?”

How do we ensure that we – and not Xi – will decide our next chief ministers and prime ministers?


Also read: Biden says he’s receiving intel briefs, warns of Russian meddling in 2020 US election


Open EVMs for inspection

One solution was for the Election Commission to make the EVM hardware and software open to everyone who wanted to inspect it. This should have been done earlier. Simply organising EVM hackathons is no answer. When we are not sure whether our phones, apps or mobile towers broadcast sensitive information to listening posts beyond our borders, how can we be certain that EVMs will not do this? When ultra-high security nuclear plants can be infected with malware to render them dysfunctional, won’t manipulating the EVM data transfer process just before polling be child’s play? Algorithmic warfare is today a monster at the cutting edge of technology. The EVM is no longer the solution – it is now the problem.

These questions were just whispers earlier. But in the light of the heightened threat India faces from a cyber superpower like China, we need to rethink every assumption about the robustness of the electoral process. We need to learn from advanced countries – are most of them dumb not to use machines in their voting process?


Also read: College pals from China are among most prolific hackers in the world ever, FBI says


Go back to paper, and record

The solution lies in two parts. The first part is a shift back to paper and away from the machine. The time taken to count the ballot is no longer a concern – Indian elections now anyway stretch for nearly 50 days. An additional three days will hardly make a difference. The additional cost is also not an issue – India can afford it. No price is too high to ensure absolute integrity and confidence in our elections.

The other issue with paper-based voting was that of ballot stuffing. Politically backed miscreants could enter the booth and stuff paper ballots to favour a specific candidate or party. This is where we bring in the second part of the solution – webcams in every booth that can live stream on the internet. A billion pairs of eyes can watch over a million booths for the ten hours of the voting process. Internet connectivity has ensured that almost every nook and corner of populated India has coverage. In the odd booth where wireless does not reach, the webcams can store and timestamp for later viewing.

This combination of paper ballots with streaming webcams in every booth is the only solution that can guarantee a clean election — free from interference of foreign powers. This is in the interest of every Indian political party — those in power and those in Opposition. No Indian political party would want an enemy of the nation to influence the election process. All of them need to unite to persuade the Election Commission. Indeed, the EC should read the writing on the wall. Every Indian citizen needs to be reassured that the democracy that we so treasure, and our vote that is so precious, is not being handed over to Xi.

The author is a technology entrepreneur and founder of Netcore Solutions based in Mumbai. He was a pioneer in Asia’s dotcom revolution, creating India’s first Internet portals in the late 1990s. Views are personal.

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40 Comments Share Your Views

40 COMMENTS

  1. I doubt author’s IQ level. Some of his arguments are ridiculous rather laughable. Please bear with me its a long comment.

    1. He is so sure that an Evm can be hacked easily and considers it a child’s play. If it was so easy why no one could do it so far despite given multiple chances by EC. No one even showed up. EC has declared multiple times that evms are stand alone units and can’t be connected through network or through cables.

    2. Author wants EC to reveal the technology of evm. This is the dumbe$t argument I have ever read. Even the people who are against using evm are not demanding for that. So, basically he wants to make it easier for hackers to target evm by revealing sensitive technology. Hats off!!!!

    3. Author raise the question by saying that why developed nations are not using evms. Now this is no brainer. Developed nations do not have population as huge as we do. Despite using evms it takes approx 50 days to finish elections. I don’t have any idea about other countries but in Canada where I live we had election results declared the next day after elections. We use paper ballots. So there is absolutely no need for evm in these countries. And in developed countries stuffing of ballot box doesn’t happen which was very common in India.

    4. Author advocates for paper ballots combined with cameras at every polling booth. Here he contradicts himself. If he thinks hacking evm is a child’s play then with the same argument how hard it would be for someone who is able to hack evm to hack cameras and servers. Not so hard right? A quick Google search shows there were around 196000 polling booths set across the country by EC during 2019 elections. And this booths are not permanent, they keep on changing. So how exactly the author plans to set cameras and the supporting network in these ever changing booths in every election. Would love to hear that.

    Note to the author: please have some brainstorming before writing

    Note to the Editor: please set some standards for publishing articles and opinions. It seems like anyone can write anything nowadays on ThePrint

    • First EVM’s are used in USA .Second “Scientific American” one of the worlds most prestigious scientific magazines has regularly published articles since decades about EVM vulnerabilities. In such a latest article published in September 2019 issue of the magazine titled ” How to Defraud Democracy” by J.Alex Halderman a Professor of Computer Science and Technology at University of Michigan and also an award winner for educating lawmakers and public about election cybersecurity. Prof.Halderman points out that :
      “There is a programming process by which the design of the ballot- the races and candidates and the rules for counting the votes- gets produced and then gets copied to every individual voting machine.Election officials usually copy it on memory cards or USB sticks for the election machines That provides a route by which malicious code could be spread…”
      In simple words the person who programs the name of parties and their symbols which differ from time to time could also insert a virus into the machine.His solution which might not work in India is to count every paper vote from every machine in case of a dispute . In India the election commission and even Supreme Court thinks that counting just five booths is sufficient.
      So firstly the author is not dumb or has a low IQ as Prof Halderman in my view has neither a low IQ nor is dumb else his article would not be published by the world’s leading scientific magazine and he has raised the same question about defrauding democracy by an EVM .I would request you and the author to read this latest article as well as previous articles about EVM’s that have been published in Scientific American for there can be no better brainstorming than articles by the world’s leading authorities on the subject.

      • A google search reveals that “National Herald” has already written about Prof.Halderman’s interview in Feb.2019. This is the link:
        https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/investigation/bjp-once-swore-by-alex-halderman-but-no-longer

        According to this report he hacked an EVM on MIT stage. This report also mentions that Halderman’s work inspired BJP spokesman GVLN Rao to write a book on the unreliable EVMs. So BJP at least knows all about Halderman and the significance of his work.

        • No offence but national herald is run by Congress party. I could provide you loads of links from the sites and news papers supporting bjp which favor using evm. Every newspaper has its own agenda this days. Don’t fall for it. Use your own wisdom

          • National Herald may be run by the Congress Party but the article “How To Defraud Democracy” appears in “Scientific American” September 2019 issue and Scientific American is the worlds post prestigious science magazine. Albert Einstein was a contributor and even today most of its contributors are either Nobel Laureates or leaders in their field. It was this article which led me to do a Google search and I was surprised to see an article reporting an interview of Prof Halderman in National Herald and the views were exactly as those expressed in Scientific American hence I gave the link.. Instead of loads of links just provide me one link to Scientific American or a journal of equal standing and I will be convinced. I would also request you to look up reliable references rather than load of links to articles that can not be confirmed.This particular link can easily be confirmed by checking with the September 2019 issue of Scientific American.

      • Agreed that the person who is coding for evm can manipulate the code. But same argument is equally applicable to the person who is handling the booth and paper ballots. Whenever there is a human being involved there are always chances of manipulation. To avoid this you will have to use robots which are again coded by humans.

        If you know, which I am sure you do, evms are assigned to each booth on the day of elections. No one would have any idea as to which evm is going to which particular polling booth. So, how a person could be sure that his manipulated evm has landed to the right polling booth and how the manipulation of code would work when we have 20 candidates running for elections on one seat and just 2 candidates running on another. You never know what kind of coding manipulation you need.

        Again I would love to hear your stance on using CCTV camera and how CCTV are hacker proof. Thanks for reading my comment and replying to it.

      • Also one has to be physically present in order to alter the code or let’s say insert a virus for each and every evm since they are not connected to any network. Considering 196000 polling booths and minimum 5 evms each booth total comes to almost 1 million. Now don’t tell me someone managed to hack even 50% of that figure. That is just a conspiracy theory more like a science fiction movie. I still agree that if given unrestricted access someone might be able to hack it but for this thing to happen you have to have unrestricted access from bottom to top level in EC and Bharat electronics. And even after that you can’t alter thousands of machines on such a scale as to manipulate the election results without being noticed.

        • It is because of these problems that Prof.Halderman has suggested that in all close elections every single paper ballot of VVPAT should be counted no matter how much time it takes but for India where voters are not literate enough to check in a few seconds the markings on the paper coming out of VVPAT the best solution might be to use paper ballots.In any case Democracy is too precious to be trusted to a verification by counting paper ballots from just five booths Please go through the article by Prof.Halderman Pages (67-71) as it is very difficult to compress four pages of small print into a comment of just a few lines

          • Actually Halderman recommends a Risk Limiting Audit which means that there is no one size fits all (Say 5 booths) for the number of booths to be hand counted. It will all depend on the margin of victory. If the margin of victory is very large then even five booths will suffice but if it is very small then every vote may need to be counted. The Supreme Court should have ordered a Risk Limiting Audit instead of ordering the counting of five booths especially as the Judges do not even know the ABC of Statistics.(Criticizing a judgement after it is announced is permitted and does not amount to contempt)

          • It seems you are still missing my point. I get it the magazine and that Prof. are credible. I never questioned the credibility. All I want to ask is how a person or a team of persons with knowledge of hacking evm would bypass all the machineries from top to bottom in EC and Bharat electronics and manage to alter the codes on such a huge scale without being noticed by anyone.

            EC is aware of this vulnerabilities and that’s why they have designed a robust system of handling and assigning evm so as to assure maximum possible safety. Perhaps you should have a look into it how EC works during election right from filing a nomination to declaring the results. You’ll have better idea how evms are handled.

        • We have not think of any one as a saint and even the entire staff of the factory may be planted and in cahoots with the EC .There are umpteen ways to tamper with a fair process. That is why a mathematical (Statistical) method called Risk Limiting Audit has been developed so that no matter how tampering is done it will come to light.The EC should indeed must use Risk Limiting Audit if it wants to convince all about the fairness of an election. Without Risk Limiting Audit even if the election is fair it will not be considered fair by impartial observers for not using Risk Limiting Audit is in itself suspicious especially in a country where rigging of elections is not a rarity.

  2. How does chinese cyber security prowess allow it to interfere with evms which are not connected to a network ?

    • How does the machine in the toll booth of a superhighway deduct the toll tax from a passing car even though neither the car nor the machine are connected to the internet? Indeed a car driver who does not pay his tax in this way may be heavily fined for the lapse.

      • @observer. That’s just a scanner which scans the number plate of the vehicle. Neither the scanner can change anything in car nor the car can change anything in scanner. Very weak argument by technology point of view. You’re trying to compare apples to oranges.

  3. Biased and ill informed article. The author has exposed not only his ignorance but also wants to put information in public domain so that he and like minded people continue to waste public money on fruitless arguments

  4. So instead of investing in better technology we should go back in time? Are we so weak now? ECI can arrange more hackathons and smart people can prove the vulnerabilities.

  5. Wow. Now even conspiracy theorists are finding an outlet on MSM. A so called tech entrepreneur calling for abandoning technology and going back to paper. What next, stop using computers, smartphones, electricity, buses, trains etc. Go back to bullock carts? Sheesh

  6. This is utter nonsense. A cyber attack can happen if you are connected to net. EVM are not connected to net during process of voting. So the only place is chip and when loading data of candidates. This could be checked and rechecked. What you want is find a trap door so that you can go to a political party and sell your services.

  7. We can see the interference of China in our elections after 2019 polls. After that polls, most of the elections to state assemblies were won by Congress. Although people might have voted against it. That is why Congress, particularly Gandhi family has soft corner for China after 2019.

  8. Just one solution for India’s problems. Let BJP rule India for next 100 years and drop all Hindu haters into Pakistan.

  9. Phones get hacked because they are connected to the internet. The same applies for govt websites and the digital infrastructure of sensitive installations like nuclear power plants.
    However, EVMs are standalone devices. There is absolutely no provision to connect with the web. Hence, someone sitting in China cannot hack his way through to an EVM.
    To use an analogy, one can hack email accounts. But can anyone possibly hack written letters? Of course no.

    • Hacking of Websites is done normally from outside India. Therefore, GOI should implement policy of allowing apps and websites access in India instead of banning apps and websites. This can be achieved by implementing a registration process if an app or a website wants to provide access to Indians. This way there will be complete control over who can access Internet Space in India.

  10. So, in short you want us to move backwards. Also EVMs are offline devices with most components according to manufacturers are either made in India or imported from reliable countries like Japan.
    If China really wants to sabotage our voting they will first target Social Media (like Russians) or smartphones (which are controlled by Chinese firms) and have become indispensable part of our lives, also about live streaming of CCTV footage can also be hacked in middle and be manipulated.
    I would also like to warn you always remember 26/11 Mumbai attacks in which Media Houses were live streaming on Television helping Terrorists in Pakistan to send instructions across borders through SAT phones costing us many lives. Live Streams can act as a perfect weapon for enemy and China is most advanced country in Live Streaming services at the same time censoring/ regulating them while being live.
    Nothing is hack proof but the alternate method you are pushing for is going back in history (Ballot System) and has more security risks than current EVM system.

  11. Another nonsensical article written based on myths, imagined fears and rumors – not facts or logic or rational thinking.

    Saying China will hack our EVMs is like saying China will hack our buses and rickshaws and cause accidents, a delusional and highly irrational fear based on ignorance.

    EVMs are made in India, they are designed in India and the EC has scrutinized, allowed all political parties to examine and scrutinize, been examined by the SC repeatedly and come out vindicated. There are many lakhs of machines, many many people at every point of custody to check and monitor their performance. We even have VPAT slips for confirmation.

    Still some motivated people want to blame X,Y and Z and claim that the machines are the reason certain politicians and parties are losing consistently. Apparently, their loss is a symptom of malfunction in democracy rather than a malfunction of their political ideology .

    Such nonsense must not be entertained and continuing to do so is only sullying our democracy due to some malcontents who would blame the syllabus and question the examiner than accept that the fault lies with them! Such rubbish gives a handle to undemocratic forces like Naxals, Islamist terrorists and China to discredit the greatest democratic exercise in human history.

    • Myths, imagined fears, rumors, fake news, lies and data fabrication has become the primary propaganda means of Congress. No sensible person could believe that a political party can get peoples support by using these means.

  12. Another nonsensical article written based on myths, imagined fears and rumors – not facts or logic or rational thinking.

    Saying China will hack our EVMs is like saying China will hack our buses and rickshaws and cause accidents, a delusional and highly irrational fear based on ignorance.

    EVMs are made in India, they are designed in India and the EC has scrutinized, allowed all political parties to examine and scrutinize, been examined by the SC repeatedly and come out vindicated. There are many lakhs of machines, many many people at every point of custody to check and monitor their performance. We even have VPAT slips for confirmation.

    Still some motivated people want to blame X,Y and Z and claim that the machines are the reason certain politicians and parties are losing consistently. Apparently, their loss is a symptom of malfunction in democracy rather than a malfunction of their political ideology .

    Such nonsense must not be entertained and continuing to do so is only sullying our democracy due to some malcontents who would blame the syllabus and question the examiner than accept that the fault lies with them! Such rubbish gives a handle to undemocratic forces like Naxals, Islamist terrorists and China to discredit the greatest democratic exercise in human history.

  13. The ignorance of the author is amazing. I do not think he is old enough to know what used to happen when there were paper ballots and webcams can simply be covered with cooperation of election officials. It has happened even with EVMs during last elections in AP.
    A Tahsildar, known supporter of YSRCP, despite not being an election official, stayed in the election booth for the whole day in Tadepalli and directed election officials on how to carry out elections. Many voters all over the state exercised their votes only during their second visit because election officials claimed EVMs were malfunctioning. Same with me and my patients. Everyone I asked had voted for a particular party and are surprised how YSRCP won.
    The Tahsildar I mentioned was suspended but he was anyway near retirement, only after the TDP party & its candidate protested. Many places in AP did not complete voting even by 9 PM. This was all done under the direction of the new Chief Secretary, L.V.SUBRAHMANYAM, who was appointed by central government 1 month before elections and then, continued as Chief Secretary. No one bothered about the impropriety. He told many lies and finally got kicked out by the new government and is now with the BJP.

  14. Ok. So an EVM (not connected to the net) can be hacked. But a webcam system connected to the net is the ONLY unhackable solution ?!
    Modi haters can go to any extent to fool the public !

  15. We can’t say paper ballot is expensive when governments spend Rs 20000 CRORE on redesigning buildings for image building.

    • Ballot system is recurring as elections and in future cost of elections will only increase as populations grows making ballot unfeasible for long term future. Also to be noted buildings and monuments once constructed don’t require same amount of money every 5 years (leaving state and municipal elections aside).

  16. We can see the interference of China in our elections after 2019 polls. After that polls, most of the elections to state assemblies were won by Congress. Although people might have voted against it. That is why Congress, particularly Gandhi family has soft corner for China after 2019 General Elections.

  17. “Exercise the strictest economy of words, but not of truth. Restrain your expression, but not the inner light which should burn brighter with increasing restraint.”

    make all articles concise, dont flatten everything with personal opinon

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