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Who says EVMs can be hacked?

By Navin Chawla
Last updated on: March 13, 2019 08:37 IST
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'Although the Election Commission remains convinced about the EVM's integrity, as a fair umpire of the game it was necessary to travel the last mile to convince political players that the entire process was not only fair but transparently so.'
A fascinating excerpt from former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla's new book, Excerpted from Every Vote Counts: The Story Of India's Elections.

IMAGE: Polling officials check Electronic Voting Machines in Chandigarh, May 12, 2009. Photograph: Ajay Verma/Reuters

The manufacturers of the electronic voting machines were two highly reputed companies whose ownership rested with the government.

These were Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), which was under the administrative charge of the ministry of defence, and the Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL), a company under the administrative control of the department of atomic energy.

Over the years, the Commission had always kept political parties abreast of the number of steps that have been taken to secure the machines at all stages, in the weeks leading up to elections and in the post-election periods.

Procedures had been put in place to enhance transparency and provide every opportunity for political parties and candidates to participate in testing the reliability of the machines at several levels.

There were regular audits.

There is a first level of testing, much before the machines are allotted to various constituencies from storage points, when party representatives are invited to participate in these tests.

They are then permitted to select 5 per cent of the machines at random, in which up to 1,000 votes can be polled, to verify their reliability.

The EVMs are then sent out to constituencies but, once again, little is left to chance.

A computer programme allocates, again at random, machines to various constituencies.

Here, a second level of testing is conducted at the constituency headquarters.

From constituency headquarters, the EVMs must travel to all the polling stations therein.

Yet again nothing is left to chance.

For a third time, the machines are randomly allocated by using a computer programme to the actual polling stations.

Here too the candidates are allowed to test the machines of their choice.

The serial number of each machine sent to each polling station within each constituency is always shared with the candidates who would need to provide these numbers to their own representatives at the respective polling stations.


IMAGE: An official films EVMS inside a strongroom before the start of vote counting in Ahmedabad, May 16, 2014. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

Randomisation all the way down the line lies at the heart of the Commission's EVM delivery system.

Parties and candidates are encouraged to inspect any machine when these reach the constituencies and check their unique numbers.

This includes all machines held in reserve.

These are then grouped and lots drawn at random to assign the groups of EVMs to the assembly segments.

Each candidate or party can accompany these lots to the assembly segment strongrooms for storage till the polling day.

The entire process was videographed.

IMAGE: A policeman stands guard as polling officials carrying EVMS arrive to count votes at a counting centre in Jammu, May 16, 2014. Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

The parties or candidates are free to post their representatives to 'guard' the machines while they were stored.

Each candidate would have his or her unique machine numbers duly signed by the DEO, which could be cross-checked at the time of the mock poll that preceds the D-day, and anytime till the process of counting of votes actually began.

It was only after we were satisfied that all the questions raised had been cleared by our experts that we invited those who had expressed any doubts, (political parties and individuals alike), to actually demonstrate tamperability on any of a hundred machines that we had assembled at random in the Commission headquarters.

For the first time ever, it was 'open house' for any stakeholder to come forth to challenge the machine's reliability.

A wag called it 'State-sanctioned hacking'.

We announced the working week between 3 and 7 August 2009 for this purpose.

This was preceded with the Commission publicly announcing its position through a detailed press note that ours were stand-alone machines which could in no way be networked with any computer or other external source.

The chip contained in the EVM had a one-time-only programme, not dissimilar to a pocket calculator programmed to follow only a few commands and which was not capable of being manipulated from, or by, any outside source.

The source code for our EVMs was not known to anyone but a clutch of experts in the manufacturing companies.

It was certainly not known to us in the Commission.

The conditions that we created were not dissimilar to that of an average polling booth.

All 'naysayers' were free to 'tamper' with any of the machines, in front of our officials, members of the expert committee and our legal team.

This was also an opportunity for that crop of persons who invariably popped up before every election with 'fixing' solutions.

Some candidates, having heard of techies who could 'fix' the machines for a fee, made efforts to locate such 'technical advice'.

A few prominent dissenters brought out papers on EVM vulnerabilities tested by them on lookalike machines.

We now invited any one who wished to challenge the EVM to do so.

Since transparency was vital, it was made clear that video cameras have been installed to record the proceedings, which would be submitted to any court of law that asked for the result of such trials.

Meanwhile, Subramanian Swamy had moved the Delhi high court questioning the expertise of the Commission's Expert Committee.

He alleged that the chip in the EVM could be injected with a 'trojan' which could be 'triggered' after a pre-designated event or sequence of events had been put into motion.

For example, the programmed 'trojan' could be 'triggered' if a certain predetermined pattern were activated.

In such an eventuality, the EVM would continue to function normally until such time as the 'trojan' was operated by one or a few designated 'conspirators' who cast their votes in the prearranged pattern.

Thereafter, as per the 'trojan's' design, the EVM would record extra votes in favour of the conspirator's choice.

For instance, that might mean that every other vote or second vote or third vote or fourth vote or fifth vote (depending on the 'programme') would automatically go to that candidate in whose favour the machine had been rigged, irrespective of the button pressed.

IMAGE: Election staff prepare Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines and EVMs ahead of India's general election at a warehouse in Ahmedabad, March 6, 2019. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

Our 'demonstration week' proved rather tumultuous.

Some of those who came were not satisfied with the way the demonstrations were conducted.

Most of them wanted to examine the chip more closely.

Some wanted to photograph the chip; others wanted to take the machine away to examine it more closely.

The representatives of the manufacturers, who were present and whose companies held the Intellectual Property Rights refused permission for what they believed were attempts at reverse engineering through attempts to copy the internal design and measurements.

They wanted the demonstrations to be conducted in the manner that a voter might attempt in an election booth.

We, in the Commission, did not have the right to overrule the manufacturers and their engineers.

An impasse occurred.

Neither side was willing to cede ground.

Our manufacturers firmly held that any attempt at reverse engineering would compromise the machine for all time.

Meanwhile, the court hearings continued on schedule.

It was during these hearings that the petitioner proposed that if a 'verifiable paper trail' were created, that would assuage his doubts.

The voter would then have the opportunity of verifying the name and party of the candidate for whom he or she had pressed the button.

IMAGE: Election staff prepare VVPAT machines and EVMs ahead of the Lok Sabha election in Ahmedabad, March 6, 2019. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

Swamy, in his rejoinder added: 'It is once again emphasized that the petitioner, at no stage, has made the averment that there has actually been any fraud through the EVMs of the respondent; only that any electronic machine can be hacked or rigged and hence adequate safeguards are essential to meet the constitutional obligation for conducting free and fair elections.'

This was an idea well worth pursuing, for although the Commission was (and I believe still remains) convinced about the machine's integrity, as a fair umpire of the game it was necessary to travel the last mile to convince political players that the entire process was not only fair but transparently so.

This is how the idea of a paper trail was born.

This led to yet another round of consultations with our Expert Committee and the manufacturers of our EVMs -- BEL and ECIL.

It soon became clear from my first meeting that it was no easy task to create a complementary machine that would create a 'paper trail'. Certainly, it was not something that could be readied overnight.

IMAGE: Election staff check VVPAT machines and EVMs in Ahmedabad, March 6, 2019. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

Both manufacturers, though conscious of the priority now attached to the issue by the court and the Commission, wanted to proceed with due caution.

I chaired several meetings between them and our Experts Committee.

We requested them to demonstrate their prototype as soon as they could develop one.

It was clear that they needed several months for research and development.

Even before I demitted office in 2010, at least three demonstrations of early models of the machine were conducted before the full Commission and our Expert Committee.

The initial prototypes did not inspire confidence.

The margin of error could be as high as 15 per cent, as compared to the EVM's tested error rate of a less than 1 per cent.

But these were still early days and the manufacturers needed more time, especially as they received our feedback.

What was required was a printer attached to the EVM which would enable the voter to verify her or his vote -- that is, the candidate's name and election symbol -- through a glass case.

It would remain on view for a few seconds before being dropped into a drop box.

A beep would announce closure.

Under no circumstance could the paper be allowed into the hands of the voters for fear of misuse.

Candidates who bribed voters--and voters open to bribery--would otherwise benefit by the display of the paper trail in the hands of a voter, as he or she exited from the booth.

There was also the matter of additional expense which the government would have to bear.

While an EVM cost as little as Rs 15,000 (as compared to almost $15,000 for machines used in most other Western countries), this new machine christened the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) would cost very much more.

The legal process took its own course.

The matter also came up before the Supreme Court, which ruled that in order to make EVMs completely tamper-proof and the process transparent, a voter verifiable paper audit trail had become essential.

The Election Commission duly informed the Supreme Court that it was already working on the concept and its Technical Advisory Committee had already approved a design.

The VVPAT was put through field trials in July 2011.

These field trials had been conducted in five different climatic zones (Leh in Ladakh, Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, Sohra in Meghalaya, Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and Delhi).

A second set of trials were conducted a year later.

On 19 February 2013 the final model was approved by the TEC.

The court appreciated this 'pragmatic and reasonable approach' of the Commission and permitted it to introduce the machines in phases.

This was a prudent decision, for where electoral fortunes could be decided by a single vote, a high degree of error would create many more problems than it might solve.

The final design was appraised by political parties on 10 May 2013.

So that there should be no legal hitch on their usage, the Conduct of Election Rules 1961 were suitably amended.

In September 2013, VVPATs were put to the test in a bye-election in Nagaland.

Although the apex court had sought their introduction in a phased manner in time for GE 2014, the technology was still at a nascent stage.

However, when it came to the 2017 assembly elections in Punjab, Manipur, Uttarakhand, UP and Goa, the Commission felt more confident of VVPAT's wider use.

As many as 53,500 VVPAT machines were selectively employed in a little over a hundred constituencies.

Finding the money to foot the bill became a hurdle.

The Commission addressed the Central government several times asking for release of funds for deploying VVPATs in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections.

Finally, prodded by the Supreme Court, government cleared the allocation of the funds required, enabling the Commission to issue a letter of intent to buy 16.15 lakh VVPAT machines at an estimated cost of Rs 3,173.47 crore.

As with EVMs, this order was divided between Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd.

The Commission now stood committed to deploying VVPATs in all forthcoming elections including GE 2019.


Excerpted from Every Vote Counts: The Story Of India's Elections by Navin Chawla, with the kind permission of the publishers, HarperCollins India.




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