Can Digital Voter ID ‘Harm’ India’s Election Process & Democracy?

“What if the digital database of the E-Voter ID is stolen and handed over to a particular political entity?”

Published
Opinion
6 min read
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The Election Commission’s (EC) new proposal for a digital voter ID has underpinnings that are yet to be understood, and certainly is more significant a move than is apparent prima facie.

The proposed digital voter ID bears risks that need greater understanding. The Election Commission has started to issue Electronic Electoral Photo Identity Cards (E-EPIC) since 25 January, and these will be used in the forthcoming assembly elections in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry. This card is in addition to the traditional voter ID card that the EC has already issued to voters in physical form. One can access the relevant information by visiting the EC website.

What If Database Of E-Voter ID Is Stolen?

Prima facie, the E-EPIC appears to be a creative and user-friendly proposition. But a careful reading tells us that if personal data stored digitally is stolen, it’ll amount to having the ‘nuclear code’ in an electoral battle. For the part(ies) who (may) chance upon this treasure trove of voters’ personal data, it will be like winning the lottery. Of course, needless to say that we have full faith in our Election Commission which has competent and honest functionaries, but history and past trends tell us that in the digital world (especially), things can go awry — and how.

What if the database is stolen and handed over to a particular political entity? Be it the Opposition or the party in power, those who lay their hands on it will have an unfair advantage in the election, and this will not allow for a level-playing field.

Before using a new technology, it is essential to find out all the ways in which it could be breached or misused, and what are the challenges it can potentially throw up. It is essential to anticipate all such scenarios, especially when dealing with something as sensitive as personal data in a democracy. Stealing of data, hacking, misuse and large-scale cyber attacks are now commonplace.

In What Ways Can Stolen Database Of E-Voter ID Be Misused?

Now the hypothetical question is that: if someone manages to get hold of the mobile database connected with this E-voter card, then in how in many ways could it be misused? What will be the magnitude of this collateral damage?

The answer is quite grave. The game changes once the digital voter card is linked with a mobile number. For any political party wishing to win an electoral battle, this database becomes a treasure trove.

These phone numbers will be stored at the backend of the Election Commission and may not be available to everyone. But whoever is able to lay his/her hands on them, will go on to make a windfall of unimaginable proportions.

Before the election campaign takes off, various types of messages could be sent to the voters and people could be told about various schemes beforehand. During elections, one can enumerate the achievements of one’s party and voters could be asked to vote on that basis. All these would mean direct access to voters. Those who do not have such data, will find it extremely difficult to connect with a giant electorate merely via posters, banners and by touring the area. But mobile connectivity will ensure a deeper connect. It may equally be possible that a very industrious candidate manages to get hold of the list of beneficiaries of various government schemes, and informs them before the election that they have been able to deliver to them the benefits of such schemes — thus, swaying the vote.

How To Win An Election

The science of winning an election is underlined by a powerful ‘triangle’:

  • A voter’s Election Photo Identity Card (EPIC) carries a voter’s demographic information – name, address, sex, age etc.
  • The voter’s phone number and e-mail ID is also available through it
  • Form-20. This form stores the information about which candidate got how many votes at a particular booth. This gives the information about voters’ preferences at each and every booth. Classification of booths becomes easier on the basis of voter preference – those who always vote for a party, always goes against it, and those who are fickle-minded. One can categorise these as green, red and yellow booths.

Now, whoever has this data can reorient their strategy to consolidate their position on the supporter’s booth.

If it is yellow, then they will adopt the strategy of persuasion. And if a booth is a red zone for someone — which means they have more opponents there — then they can think of ways to suppress voting there.

Making names ‘disappear’ from the voter list, preferring the registration of new voters, intimidation and bribing voters to not vote for one’s opponents, and then getting a booth with the maximum number of voters who may prefer voting for rivals transferred to another constituency during delimitation — are ‘old tricks’ in India’s election playbook.

If & When NRC Is Enforced, Here’s How E-Voter ID Data Could Be Further Misused

A new strategy could also be adopted — citizenship could be decided as per the NRC as and when a government enforces it — and the voter list could be purged of those considered ineligible. Who will be cast out of the list for sure is of course, by now known to all and sundry. (In the case of Assam, however, the Election Commission has made it amply clear that names of voters will not be taken out of the voter list on the basis of NRC during the upcoming election.)

Now, when E-Voter ID Cards are being launched, voters can be ‘tricked’ into believing that they should rush to get a new digital card, else they may not be eligible to vote.

Most people know that having a registered voter ID is essential for casting a vote. But when you go to vote, you need not carry this card. You have a dozen alternative ways to verify your identity which includes Aadhaar, ration card, driver’s licence, passport etc. Any card with a photo ID is enough under the rules.

Importance Of Booth-Level Data From Form-20, For Politicians — As ‘Demonstrated’ By Maneka Gandhi

For one, Maneka Gandhi knows how important booth-level data from Form-20 is, which she demonstrated during the election campaign of the 2019 parliamentary elections in Sultanpur. She had warned Muslim voters of this constituency that if they failed to vote for her, she would ‘come to know’ and their villages would be kept out of the purview of development.

In a meeting she revealed how she had divided villages into categories like A, B, C and D. A = she got 80 percent votes, D = where she got less than 50 percent votes. This points to the underpinnings of having access to Form-20. Now add a mobile number to this, and imagine the possibilities it holds. So this data could be mined and analysed in various ways and every voter could be carefully profiled and targeted.

The sensitivity of such data is best underlined by the EC in its recent advice to the Home Ministry.

To identify the beneficiaries of the COVID vaccine, the Home Ministry asked for this data from the Election Commission. And the Commission has provided this data with this precondition that every step would be taken to protect this data, and once used, it should be deleted. If the Commission did not know about its potential for misuse, it would not have put forth this advice.

Will EC Be Able To Protect E-Voter ID Data?

The consequences of this scheme will be mammoth and beyond imagination. Considering the minimal understanding of tech that many of our politicians and leaders have, it may be possible that these (sensitive) aspects of this digital ID scheme will never be debated.

In the political arena, on one hand, there is no limit of hunger for such data and its storage, and on the other hand, the ignorance about the sensitivity of such data is also in equal proportion.

One hopes the Election Commission will take every step to protect this data, otherwise, fancy slogans about ‘digitisation’ would only serve to weaken democracy.

(This piece has been translated from the original Hindi to English by Dr Vijay Kumar Sharma. The original article was published on The Quint Hindi on 25 January 2021.)

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