Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Mooted voting machine has caught flak from all angles

Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) which will be used in Botswana’s 2019 General elections are susceptible to hacking and manipulation and do not meet requisite safety standards to protect the integrity of the election process, international Information Technology (IT) and engineering experts have warned.

The Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) to be supplied by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), an India state-owned company are internationally known as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines because they record votes directly in electronic memory. Similar voting machines have been banned in Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland because they are prone to hacking and manipulation, and are allowed in most American states only with the back-up of a voter-verified paper trail

Botswana and India will both use the controversial EVMs supplied by Bharat Electronics Limited during their 2019 General Elections. While India will use a voter-verified paper trail audit system (VVPTS) to minimise the possibility of election fraud, Botswana on the other hand, will leave the back door open to possible vote rigging.

Secretary of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) Gabriel Seeletso told the media recently that three companies were invited to present their EVMs, but only BEL came through. Seeletso was, however, quick to point out that once the Act is enacted they would either open up for tenders or directly appoint a company that would meet their specifications.

The Delhi High Court in India ruled on January 17, 2012 that the voting machines manufactured by BEL were not “tamper-proof”.

This confirmed a 2010 independent security analysis by an Indian research team which revealed that the country’s voting machines were indeed vulnerable to hacking and manipulation.

Following the court ruling, the Elections Commission of India (ECA) introduced a VVPTS to guard against election fraud. According to the VVPTS, on pressing the button for each vote, a paper receipt is printed, which is visible to the voter inside a glass box but cannot be retrieved from the machine.

It has, however, emerged that BEL cannot provide the VVPTS to Botswana for the 2019 General Elections.

The court ruling against the BEL’s EVMs came in the wake of scientific information compiled over many years and a number of articles published in reputable computer engineering journals and in the popular international press, raising doubts about their integrity, especially those manufactured by the Indian electronics company.

The respected International Electrical & Electronics Engineering Journal (IEEE, May 2009, p.23) published an article by two eminent professors of computer science, titled “Trustworthy Voting.” They conclude that although EVMs do offer a myriad of benefits, these cannot be reaped unless nine suggested safeguards are put in place to protect the integrity of the outcome. None of these nine safeguards, however, was in place in BEL’s EVMs which will be used in Botswana’s 2019 General Elections. The engineering journal concluded that EVMs “do not meet the standard of national integrity or safeguard for the sanctity of our democracy”.

An international conference on the Indian EVMs and vulnerability of the machines was held under the chairmanship of Subramanian Swamy, President of the Janata Party and former Union Cabinet Minister for Law, Commerce and Justice at Chennai on February 13, 2010.

In April 2010, an independent security analysis was released by a research team led by Hari Prasad, Rop Gonggrijp and J. Alex Halderman. The study included video demonstrations of two attacks that the researchers carried out on a real EVM, as well as descriptions of several other potential vulnerabilities. In order to mitigate these threats, the researchers suggested moving to a voting system that provides greater transparency, such as paper ballots, precinct count optical scan, or a voter-verified paper audit trail.

Botswana, however, has decided to introduce the BEL version without putting in place the safeguards proposed by the security analysis.

Earlier in 2009 Omesh Saigal, who has served as chief secretary of Delhi and retired as secretary to Government of India challenged claims by the Election Commission of India (ECI) that the EVMs manufactured by BEL cannot be rigged or hacked. Saigal wrote to India’s Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla claiming that a detailed study he conducted with the help of information technology experts had shown that rigging of India’s EVMs is “possible and plausible”.

Saigal also cited a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins University and Rice University, which established that if one gets to know the source code of an EVM, it is possible for a single person to cast unlimited ballots without detection.

To see if a similar fraud could be done in India, which uses BEL machines, Saigal assigned a young programmer to design a very simple programme which could skew the result if a pre-programmed code number was keyed in. A mock poll showed that every fifth vote after the first 10 would go in favour of a particular candidate.

Sunday Standard investigations have also turned up information that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has been monitoring foreign countries’ use of EVMs, has reported apparent vote-rigging schemes in Venezuela, Macedonia and Ukraine and a raft of concerns about the machines’ vulnerability to tampering.

Appearing before a 2009 US Election Assistance Commission field hearing in Orlando, Florida, a CIA cyber security expert Steve Stigall, summarised what he described as attempts to use computers to undermine democratic elections in developing nations.

Stigall’s remarks have been used as background information for a number of articles carried in BBC, Newsweek, the Huffington Post and a number of reputable international publications raising doubts about the integrity of EVMs.

The BBC carried a story about how scientists at a US university developed a technique to hack into BEL’s EVMs.

After connecting a home-made device to an EVM, University of Michigan researchers were able to change results by sending text messages from a mobile.

A video posted on the internet by the researchers at the University of Michigan purportedly shows them connecting a home-made electronic device to one of the voting machines used in India. Professor J. Alex Halderman, who led the project, said the ruse allowed them to change the results on the machine by sending it messages from a mobile phone.

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