Can Indian EVMs be Hacked? The Quint Heads to London to Find Out

A US-based tech expert claims he can prove Indian EVMs are hackable. Here’s what we know so far.

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Expert Claims He Can Prove EVM Tampering

Can Electronic Voting Machines or EVMs, as they’re more commonly known, be hacked?

With the general elections of 2019 around the corner, that’s the Billion Vote Question – that we may be finally getting an answer to.

A US-based cyber expert, who has designed EVMs used in India, claims that he can demonstrate that the machines can be hacked. He will be showing how this can be done, supposedly using EVMs actually used in recent elections, and will say where elections that have been tampered with, at a presentation in London on Monday, 21 January 2019.

And The Quint will be there to see if he can back up his claims. Join me, Vakasha Sachdev, when we go live from 5:30 pm IST, to see whether our democracy has been hacked, and whether our elections are truly free and fair.

Past Allegations of EVM-Tampering

But how did we get here? Why are EVMs, which were meant to be safer and less easy to tamper with than paper ballots, under the scanner?

Questions over manipulation of Electronic Voting Machines have been a fixture of mainstream Indian politics since 2009, when senior BJP leader LK Advani alleged that EVMs weren’t foolproof. Current BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao wrote an entire book on the topic in 2010, in which Advani noted that many countries like Germany had banned their use.

After the BJP came to power in the Centre in 2014, Opposition parties took up the baton, alleging tampering of EVMs at regular intervals.

The most recent example of this was when the AAP and the Congress raised concerns about malfunctions and alleged attempts to tamper with EVMs during the recent round of state elections. 3 percent of EVMs in Madhya Pradesh experienced glitches during the elections in November 2018, and there were a string of suspicious incidents in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan involving EVMs.

These included an SUV ramming into a strong room in MP, apprehension of purported Reliance Jio employees near an EVM-strong room in Jagdalpur, and the discovery of an EVM in a BJP Rajasthan MLA’s house.

The Congress complained to the Election Commission about potential hacking of EVMs via Bluetooth during the Gujarat election in 2017, a claim rejected by the EC after an inquiry. The same year, the BSP also claimed tampering during the Uttar Pradesh elections, while the AAP alleged tampering in Punjab.


Election Commission’s Stance on Allegations

So how credible have these claims been? Should we genuinely be worried about the prospect? And has the Election Commission done anything about it all?

Most allegations of EVM tampering have tended to be vague, and have not been backed up by much evidence.

One of the most serious complaints came from Bhind, Madhya Pradesh ahead of Assembly bypolls in March 2017. A number of reports emerged at the time that during a demonstration by EC officials of how the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system worked, the paper trail from the VVPAT showed that more votes went in favour of the BJP than were cast for it.

The EC suspended the officials involved and conducted a probe, which found that there was no such mismatch in the votes, and that the confusion seemed to result from miscommunication. However, it did find that the pre-loaded data on the VVPAT machine had not been deleted.

The Election Commission has insisted that EVMs cannot be hacked, noting that the EVMs can’t be tampered with remotely since they don’t have networking devices which can be accessed by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Tampering would therefore require physically opening up the machine, which the EC claims cannot be done without them knowing. The Election Commission has also cited the efforts made to randomize which EVMs are used for which constituencies, and insist they will use VVPAT along with all EVMs to ensure transparency.

The Election Commission even organised a hackathon in June 2017 where they challenged doubters to hack one of their EVMs, but only two parties, the NCP and CPM participated. Neither ended up taking the challenge because of the conditions imposed by the EVM, and other parties had refused to take part after the EC said they couldn’t tamper with the motherboard of the EVMs.

AAP MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj had claimed EVMs could be manipulated by changing the motherboard and then using a code to change the votes on a particular machine, and demonstrated this with a prototype. The EC dismissed his claims.

In conclusion, despite lots of claims, EVM tampering has never been proved, at least on the machines used by the Election Commission. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We’ll just have to wait and see if this new demonstration will change that.

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