I never looked at my blog as anything more than selfish gratification, until quite recently when a person named Hari Prasad got arrested last week for allegedly having “stolen” an electronic voting machine.
First some background – ever since the EVMs were used in elections, my mom has been involved with a group of politically-un-allied activists. Naturally I made quite a bit of fun of her (my family always enjoys a bit of a jest at each others’ expense.) She used to visit me in Hyderabad often on account of her meetings with Mr. Hari Prasad who has his offices in Madhapur. She introduced me to him on multiple occasions but I always took the meetings casually, being more involved in my “work or whatever.”
You may imagine my surprise when one morning I wake up and see this same Hari Prasad an internet sensation making the headlines on Digg and Slashdot. Then you would have seen me telling everyone, “I know that guy personally and I know that he knows what he’s talking about.” I just found out my mom is in Mumbai awaiting his release and has been subpoena’d (not sure by which side right now), and decided to at least bring the issue to attention. Let me be honest, an year ago, she was in Hyderabad at least five or six times, and while I did believe what she said about the machines, I would never have imagined that they would be taken seriously, and let me be the first to say, I am sooooooo happy I was wayyyyy wrong! If you met those people, they’re really just electronicians – these guys aren’t politicians, and they don’t know squat about that stuff. They know how chipsets work and serial ports work, and that’s all they are making claims about.
To reach slashdot and get that much international attention, to get arrested is pretty impressive. What’s more, I called a few friends and family members in India right now, and nobody down there has any clue that this is even happening. That was a bit disturbing frankly.
So what really is the deal with the voting machines? Quite a lot really – I’ve heard discussions and arguments right from having found the seals broken on the boxes in which they were being carried, and the fact that the storage chips on which the numbers are stored could be plugged out and replaced with relative ease – and this stuff is what they teach in Electronics 101.
I don’t have all the specs with me right now, but I’ve been talking to these people enough where it warrants at least some looking-into by voters before you make up your minds. Whether you are for the winning party or not, as Perry Mason would say, everyone is entitled to a defense because it protects us from being falsely accused of a crime. In the same way, even if you love the winning party, it is in your best interests to at least give attention to the matter so that you are protected, should the system be compromised against you.
The real issue from a common-sense point of view that every really seems to overlook is this: that the “count” stored on the machines is virtual. You see, everyone makes comparisons to conventional ballot-boxes, and a casual “what’s the difference really?” kind of arguments. What they don’t realise is, in the old system there were physically 10,000 pieces of paper that necessitated tampering. An interested political party just needed to hire a street-side loafer to follow the van that carries the sealed ballot boxes from the voting booths back to the election-commission offices to see that nobody brought in another set of a thousand or so pieces of paper to replace the originals. Then again, when the boxes are sealed/unsealed, there are witnesses who sign the locks. Even the ballot papers used for counting can be verified for authenticity and their authenticity can be questioned (if you notice an inkjet printout, it’s a no-brainer.) In short, the system has multiple checks in place to ensure lack of tampering.
In an EVM though, all these checks and balances go out and what we get is: Party A: 5000, Party B 20,000. These are pure numbers. There is no public-key system that ensures even 25,000 different people walked into the booth. There is no way to “go back”, or trace tampering. There is no log of when entries were made – even a text file that contains time-stamps of actions without any Personally Identifiable Information (PII) would make tampering that much harder since a scammer would have to fabricate a large text-file and make sure it’s consistent. Heck, someone could even look at what sectors/clusters each of the block of the text-file was stored in to provide an indication whether it was generated over a period of 5 hours, or was just copied from one large blob.
Does it make forgeries impossible? Of course not, and those claims existed against the old-school ballots too. But does the current machine make forging ridiculiously simple? Yes. For anyone politically inclined, I would encourage you to at least check out his youtube videos. I’ll provide more edits to this post with more details on where to find information.