Hari K Prasad was arrested in 2010. File picture
Though not keen to take up the EC challenge this time, Prasad continues to maintain that EVMs are vulnerable to hacking.
It has been almost eight years since Hari K Prasad tried to prove that the electronic voting machine used in India is not tamper-proof. The face of the EVM sceptics movement in 2009, however, had been keeping a low profile during the current controversy over EVMs being vulnerable to tampering.
Until last week. Prasad’s Twitter account, inactive for a year, has sprung back to life as he has started to share his thoughts on the Election Commission’s plan to challenge naysayers to demonstrate the alleged fallibility of EVMs. “ECI doing the mistake once gain, challenging techies is like falling into their own trap,” he tweeted on April 13 at 7.11 am. Another tweet followed an hour later: “ECI shud first invite for an open security audit in EVMs to list out all vulnerable touch points for criminals and secure wrap one by one.”
Prasad, then managing director of Netindia Pvt Ltd, was arrested in 2010 following an attempt at proving that EVMs can be tampered. His arrest pushed his company — which lost business while his employees felt threatened, he claims — to the brink of ruin.
Though not keen to take up the EC challenge this time, Prasad continues to maintain that EVMs are vulnerable to hacking. “EVMs without VVPAT [voter verified paper audit trail] are vulnerable,” he told The Indian Express in an interview over the phone. “No electronic machine is secure without a tangible receipt that can be verified. Electronics can always be manipulated. It’s just a matter of understanding the technology.”
VVPAT machines produce a printout of the vote cast on EVMs, which can be used later to resolve any dispute. “Even the EC had admitted that there is a possibility to manipulate an EVM when proper administrative measures are not in place,” Prasad said. “They had agreed to implement the VVPAT. Why don’t they just commit to rolling out VVPAT before 2019 [Lok Sabha elections] instead of challenging technicians to prove hacking? This will silence all allegations.”
Prasad cites his personal experience of participating in the EVM challenge of 2009 to justify his disapproval of the EC’s plan to repeat the exercise in the first week of May. He alleges that EC officials had interrupted him 15 minutes into his attempt and didn’t allow him to finish. However, the EC’s press statement at that time said that no one was able to prove their allegations of hacking.
Asked about the EC’s stand that no one had been able to demonstrate tampering in 2009, he said, “They had recorded the entire meeting on video. If they are so confident, why don’t they show it to the world…?”
Having accused the EC of not providing him access long enough to prove his point, Prasad managed to get an EVM in 2010 and demonstrated its supposed vulnerability to tampering in a video. He was later arrested on charges of stealing an EVM.
About the current challenge, he said, “Look, a criminal will never come over and show you how he or she is going to hack a machine, is he? Currently, the EC is citing a host of administrative precautions being taken to prevent hacking. But what about insider threat or collusion that happens under the incumbent government? Is the EC is sure that no EVM has ever been stolen from any of their warehouses? The security of these machines is not of military grade. The administrative measures… alone cannot make the machines safe from hacking. Which is why I think the EC should call for an open security audit or a hackathon rewarding people who can highlight loopholes… instead of throwing a challenge that antagonises technical experts,” said the entrepreneur, who is currently a member of the e-governing council of Andhra Pradesh and one of the architects of the AP overhead fibre optic network .
Prasad doesn’t agree with Opposition parties’s demand that the EC revert to voting by paper ballots. “We need them [EVMs] because they’ve made the election process quicker. My limited point is that EVMs need to be supported by VVPATs which can be cross-verified in case of a controversy.”
He refrained from commenting on Opposition’s allegations that the EVMs used in the recently-concluded elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab were rigged.
The EC, he adds, should tweak the VVPAT design to permit a two-step verification process. Currently, the paper trail machine prints a receipt only after the vote has been cast. In case the vote has been incorrectly registered, the elector cannot prevent the receipt from dropping into in the ballot box. The voter can only raise a complaint with the polling official, who might order a replacement for the EVM. Prasad wants that the voter should be allowed to first check if the EVM is working correctly by casting a dummy vote. After verification with the VVPAT slip, the voter should cast her final vote and only the second VVPAT slip should be deposited in the ballot box.