Dr Subramanian swamy on EVM frauds

published on May 31, 2009

Dangers of trusting them too much

Source: www.expressbuzz.com

There is much talk today about electoral rigging in the recent general elections. These doubts have arisen from the unexpected number of seats won by the Congress, and they are accentuated by the spate of articles recently published in reputed computer engineering journals and in the popular international press. All raise doubts about the EVMs.

For example, International Electrical & Electronics Engineering Journal (May 2009, p 23) has published an article by two professors of computer science, titled: Trustworthy Voting. They conclude that while electronic voting machines offer a myriad of benefits, nine suggested safeguards are absolutely essential to protect the integrity of outcomes. None of these safeguards are in place in Indian EVMs. In India they do not meet the standard of national integrity.

Newsweek magazine (June 1) has published an article by Evgeny Morozov, who points out that when Ireland embarked on an ambitious e-voting scheme in 2006, such as fancy touch-screen voting machines, it was widely welcomed: Three years and 51 million euros later, in April, the government scrapped the initiative. What doomed the effort was a lack of trust: the electorate just didn’t like it that the machines would record their votes as mere electronic blips, with no tangible record.

A backlash against e-voting is brewing all over Europe. After almost two years of deliberations, Germany’s Supreme Court ruled last March that e-voting was unconstitutional because the average citizen could not be expected to understand the exact steps involved in the recording and tallying of votes. Political scientist Ulrich Wiesner, a physicist who filed the initial lawsuit said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that the Dutch Nedap machines used in Germany were even less secure than mobile phones. The Dutch public-interest group ‘Wij Vertrouwen Stemcomputers Niet’ (We Do Not Trust Voting Machines) produced a video showing how quickly the Nedap machines could be hacked without voters or election officials being aware (the answer: in five minutes). After the clip was broadcast on national television in October 2006, the Netherlands banned all electronic voting machines.

Why are EVMs so vulnerable? Each step in the life cycle of a voting machine — from the time it is developed and installed to when the votes are recorded and the data transferred to a central repository for tallying — involves different people gaining access to the machines, often installing new software. It wouldn’t be hard for, say, an election official to paint a parallel programme under another password, on one or many voting machines that would ensure one outcome or another pre-determined even before voters arrived at the poll stations.

These dangers have been known to the Election Commission since 2000, when M S Gill, then CEC, had arranged at my initiative for professor Sanjay Sarma of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Gitanjali Swamy of Harvard to demonstrate how un-safeguarded the chips in EVMs were. Some changes in procedures were made by the EC, but not on the fundamental flaws. In 2004, the Supreme Court First Bench, of Chief Justice V N Khare, Justices Babu and Kapadia had directed the election commission to consider the technical flaws in EVMs put forward by Satinath Choudhary, a US-based software engineer in a Public Interest Litigation. But the EC has failed to consider his representation.

There are many ways to prevent EVM fraud. One way to reduce the risk is to have machines print a paper record of each vote, which voters could then deposit into a conventional ballot box. While this procedure would ensure that each vote can be verified, using paper ballots defeats the purpose of electronic voting in the first place. Using two machines produced by different manufacturers would decrease the risk of a security compromise, but wouldn’t eliminate it.

A better way, it is argued in the cited International Electrical & Electronics Engineering Journal article, is to expose the software behind electronic voting machines to public scrutiny. The root problem of electronic machines is that the computer programs that run them are usually closely held trade secrets (it doesn’t help that the software often runs on the Microsoft Windows operating system, which is not the world’s most secure). Having the software closely examined and tested by experts not affiliated with the company would make it easier to close technical loopholes that hackers can exploit. Experience with Web servers has shown that opening software to public scrutiny can uncover potential security breaches.

Now the Madras High Court is soon to hear a PIL on the EVMs. This is good news. The time has arrived for a long hard look at these machines. Otherwise elections would soon lose their credibility. All political parties must collect evidence to determine how many constituencies could have been rigged. The number would not exceed 75 in my opinion.

We can identify them as follows: Any result in which the main losing candidate of a recognised party finds that more than 10 per cent of the polling booths showed less than five votes per booth, should be taken prima facie as a constituency in which rigging has taken place. This is because the main recognised parties usually have more than five workers per booth, and hence with their families would poll a minimum of 25 votes per booth for their party candidate. Hence if these 25 voters can given affidavits affirming who they had voted for, then the high court can treat it as evidence and order a full inquiry.

(The author is a former Union law minister)

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