Case for EVM Hackathon — Democracy at stake!

It is sad that Electronic voting was introduced in India in 90s yet after two decades, we are still discussing whether Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) can be manipulated and set a favor a particular party and thereby undermining democracy. Four national elections and multiple state and local elections have been held since first used in November 1998 assembly elections but there is no consensus still on how safe these machines are. It has become a routine that opposition parties raise doubts over it while those in power defend it. While parties switch positions in Government, they switch positions in EVM as well.

Only party that has maintained same position, that the machines are not hackable and cannot be manipulated, is Election Commission of India(ECI). While so many former and current election commissioners assure the public that is fool-proof machine, it has only placated a section of society and certainly not those with inquisitive minds. ECI may have best of intentions but there is a strong reason why their word should not be taken at face value.

I am an IT entrepreneur, so let me use metaphor from my domain. When I develop a product, I go through various stages of testing the product but two that I focus more are ‘User testing’ and ‘Negative testing’. User testing because the customer / end user has to be fully comfortable with the product and Negative testing to ensure that the product can handle unexpected behavior and to unearth any flaws that is not covered in original requirements and design. I do this because no customer is going to accept the product and cut the check without knowing that it checks off all these items.

There is no product in the world, which doesn’t go through multiple stages of testing. Valuable the product, more exhaustive is the testing. Take for example a pharmaceutical company trying to launch a new drug in the market. In the United States, Drug Authorities have put in strict guidelines to ensure people’s safety that it takes an average of 12 years and billions of dollars for an experimental drug to travel from the laboratory to your medicine cabinet. While it may be a big cost and time, Government and drug authorities want to ensure that new drug developed doesn’t cause more harm than good. They will not, and should not, take word of drug companies that ‘all is well’ and let their drugs be sold immediately.

This is exactly the same situation with EVMs in India. People of India cannot take ECI’s word and rather invest any amount of resource needed for full, exhaustive testing of voting machines. If a new drug that can impact few million people takes 12 years and billions of dollars to complete testing / trials phase, there is no limit to money or time we should be ready to invest in EVM which impacts 1.3 Billion people.

While automation in voting saves time and effort in announcing the winner, cost we may pay for a manipulated election is immeasurable. Some argue that paper ballot method is open to ballot-box stuffing or theft, which is true but these methods are easy to spot, hard to replicate in large scale and at least people will know that elections are manipulated. In Electronic voting, almost no one, except manipulators and masterminds behind them, will know that elections are manipulated and democracy was murdered.

There is just too much at stake: our democracy. While I trust the ECI as a body, EVM manufacturing and monitoring is not in its control entirely and several state and central government employees and private companies are used in the process. This is their biggest security flaw. Even ECI may not know of manipulation as there are 1.6 million EVMs that are in play. All it takes is to hack 5% of total EVMs and the results can be as different as Sun and Moon.

Security experts from advanced democracies have exposed its flaws and hence many western democracies have moved back to paper ballot. Jon Warner from Argonne National Laboratory’s (USA) Vulnerability Assessment Team had demonstrated three different ways an attacker could tamper with, and remotely take full control, of the e-voting machine simply by attaching what they call a piece of “alien electronics” into the machine’s circuit board. It is not for lack of technological advances but because of fully understanding its risks that USA and Europe has moved away from it. It is high time India ensures our systems are fool proof or goes back to paper ballot. First step is to arrange a hackathon where best and brightest minds, ethical hackers and security firms are invited to validate the security of our EVMs.

After all, it is our Democracy at stake!

Few important stories from around the world that should concern us:

It only takes $26 to hack a voting machine. Researchers demonstrated three different types of attacks

Electronic voting is failing the developing world while the US and Europe abandon it

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