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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

EVMs May be Tamper-Proof, Paper Trail Will Make Them Allegation-Proof

This first appeared on Outlook Web
 


The election results in India’s biggest state Uttar Pradesh, which defied the predictions of various pollsters and political pundits, and reduced regional parties to virtual insignificance in the state assembly, has prompted some political figures to question the sanctity and reliability of the electronic voting machines (EVMs). This is not the first time that the reliability of EVMs has been questioned after the announcement of poll results. However, coming in the wake of BMC Election results where similar charges were leveled against these machines, the allegations should be taken seriously as they threaten to undermine the confidence reposed by the general public in the non-partisan nature of the Election Commission and its ability to conduct free and fair elections.

Reliability of the Electronic Voting Machines

To be fair to those leveling these allegations, they do have a point. EVMs are not perfect. In 2010, the trio of Hari K. Prasad, Dr. J. Alex Halderman and Ron Gonggrijp authored a study in which they claimed
…in spite of the machines' simplicity and minimal software trusted computing base, they are vulnerable to serious attacks that can alter election results and violate the secrecy of the ballot. We demonstrate two attacks, implemented using custom hardware, which could be carried out by dishonest election insiders or other criminals with only brief physical access to the machines. This case study carries important lessons for Indian elections and for electronic voting security more generally.
The study was presented at the 17th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security, CCS'10 held in Chicago, United States. The co-authors also released a video of the tampering procedure and further said in an associated press release -
The researchers were also surprised to find that the vote-counting software in the EVMs is programmed into so-called ‘mask programmed microcontrollers,’ which do not allow the software to be read out and verified. Because these chips are made in the US and Japan, this has led to a situation in which nobody in India knows for sure what software is in these machines or whether it counts votes accurately.
The use of EVMs has also been a source of controversy across the world. Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Italy have junked their use due to security concerns. Venezuela, Macedonia and Ukraine stopped using EVMs after it was found that they somehow had been rigged. Many other countries use paper ballots instead of EVMs as they find it to be a more reliable and secure way of conducting elections.

In our country, from L.K. Advani and Subramaniam Swamy of the BJP, Tarun Gogoi and Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress, Medha Patkar of the AAP, candidates from NCP, Shiv Sena and now Mayawati from the BSP - virtually every party, at some time or the other, has questioned the reliability of the EVMs. The question then is – despite so many complaints, what is being done to address these issues by the Election Commission?

Supreme Court Directives and Conduct of Election (Amendment) Rules, 1961 

In 2013, in Dr. Subramaniam Swamy v. Election Commission of India, the Supreme Court ruled that “paper trail” is an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections. Speaking through (then) CJI P. Sathasivam, the Hon’ble court stated
EVMs with VVPAT system ensure the accuracy of the voting system. With an intent to have fullest transparency in the system and to restore the confidence of the voters, it is necessary to set up EVMs with VVPAT system because vote is nothing but an act of expression which has immense importance in democratic system.
The apex court therefore asked the ECI to introduce the same in gradual stages or geographical-wise in the ensuing general elections and asked GoI to provide all required financial assistance.

Recently, in another petition filed by the Backwards and Minority Community Employees Federation (BAMCEF), the Supreme Court reiterated the necessity of VVPAT and asked the EC “to bring on record the approximate time within which the entire system of the VVPAT can be introduced, subject to grant of sanction and release of funds as and when required.”

The ECI, in an affidavit filed in the apex court in Dr. Subramaniam Swamy, had submitted that amendments would have to be made to the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 for making VVPATs a reality. Consequently, the government notified the said amendments and introduced the necessary changes. The amended Rule 49A of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 now reads –
Every electronic voting machine (hereinafter referred to as the voting machine) shall have a control unit and a balloting unit and shall be of such designs as may be approved by the Election Commission. Provided that a printer with a drop box of such design as may be approved by the Election Commission may also be attached to a voting machine for printing a paper trail of the vote, in such constituency or constituencies or parts thereof as the Election Commission may direct
Rule 49M(3)(c) of the amended Rules also provides that
Where printer for paper trail is used, upon casting the vote by pressing the button under clause (b), the elector shall be able to view through the transparent window of the printer, kept along with the balloting unit inside the voting compartment, the printed paper slip showing the serial no, name and the symbol of the candidate for whom he has cast his vote before such paper slip gets cut and drops in the drop box of the printer.
VVPATs were first field tested across 5 states in July 2011. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Dr. Subramaniam Swamy and after notifying the amended Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, they were introduced on a trial basis in 13 Assembly Constituencies of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly and 6 constituencies of the Haryana Legislative Assembly in the elections held in 2014. Their working was also tested in the just concluded Punjab Assembly Elections where the EC ordered re-polling in 48 booths after some of the devices malfunctioned.

Issues Associated with VVPATs

Like the EVMs, VVPATs are not without their flaws either. In a study titled “Design and the Support of Transparency in VVPAT Systems in the US Voting Systems Market”, Joseph Lorenzo Hall of the UC Berkeley, School of Information analyzed the major VVPAT systems available in the US market and highlighted several issues ranging from paper jams, quality of the paper used, inadequate size of the record viewing area, contents of the VVPAT record not being read back to sight-impaired voters etc. Concerns have also been raised about longer lines due to longer duration of polling because of the paper trail. This has implications for the rural areas where the fairness of the electoral process maybe comprised due to the polling hours being extended beyond evening.

The Conduct of Election (Amendment) Rules, 1961 do provide for a complaint mechanism in case a voter alleges that the paper trail did not correctly record his/her choice. Rule 49MA(1) provides that –
Where printer for paper trail is used, if an elector after having recorded his vote under rule 49M alleges that the paper slip generated by the printer has shown the name or symbol of a candidate other than the one he voted for, the presiding officer shall obtain a written declaration from the elector as to the allegation, after warning the elector about the consequence of making a false declaration
However, the process of filing the complaint form is a tedious one and coupled with the short duration for which the paper trail can be viewed and verified by the voter, the entire process will make it difficult for voters to approach the concerned authorities with their grievances unless the discrepancy occurs on a large scale. 

Conclusion

Just like the EVMs, the VVPATs too are not perfect. However, even Lorenzo Hall concedes that these machines provide a “mechanism that short-circuits the need to trust the computerized system” and increases the fairness and transparency of the poll process. Continued efforts are needed to improve the design and remove the flaws associated with the current design of the VVPATs. Other measures to increase the fairness and transparency of the poll process must include training of polling and counting personnel with regard to the usage and functioning of the machines and large scale voter awareness drives that educate the ordinary voter of the need to compulsorily check the paper trail and match it with his/her choice of the candidate.

Although the Election Commission has been holding the field trials of these machines for quite some time now, the need is to implement the system of paper trails on an urgent basis in the forthcoming general elections, as directed by the Supreme Court. The ECI must ensure that design flaws associated with the VVPATs being tested are removed as soon as possible because democratic process cannot wait for technology to catch up with the legitimate expectations of the people. Otherwise continuous challenges to the fairness of the election process would undermine the trust of the general public as well as the candidates in the impartiality of the Election Commission and could result in serious crises.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Politics and Development - Is There a Link?

“The price of not participating in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors” ~ Plato


A government by inferiors, as Plato calls it, is a recipe for the stunted growth of a nation and therefore, strong political leadership – that is to say – a constructive role of politics in the development process, is necessary if a nation state is to realize its full potential.

A cursory glance through the world map beginning from South East Asian nation states with export led economies and management style political leadership, to China and North Korea with communist leadership but drastically different economic fortunes, to India’s democratic leadership and steady growth, onwards to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq – countries ravaged economically due to politics of security and further towards the Middle East’s oil producing nations and largely monarchical systems, and so on and so forth, tells us about the role different styles of political leadership have recently played in shaping the developmental trajectory of the region.

The increased competition between India and China has also given rise to the debate about the role and utility of different political systems regarding economic growth and development. Yet, one must ask, is development only economic? A systematic analysis of the word ‘development’ cannot leave out its historical and social components, which together give a coherent picture of the state of a region and its people.

Historical Role

In India, ancient descriptions of various kingdoms are replete with examples of kings patronizing artists, poets, scientists, men of letters and crafts. Whether it is Kalidasa’s Abhignanshakuntalam, Todarmal’s financial capabilities under Akbar, Abhinavagupta’s Commentary on the Gita, Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra or Aryabhat’s numerous scientific discoveries, all of them were made possible due to the encouragement – moral and financial – by the prevailing political leadership of the time. India’s famous handicrafts trade, including the world renowned Daccai Muslin ‘Malmal Shahi’, flourished because it had as its patron and largest buyers various kings and their vassals of small and large kingdoms.

Add to this the various contributions in the form of numerous palaces, forts and other forms of timeless infrastructure including the famous Taj Mahal by Shah Jahan, the Grand Trunk Road by Sher Shah Suri, the various Stupas, Viharas and Grihas, sundials such as Jantar Mantar, temples like those in Konark and Jagannath Puri and the dome shaped mosques and minarets such as Jama Masjid and Bada Imambara - all these are physical consequences of political initiatives of their time.

Yet, not all historical contributions of politics have been positive. The destruction of the famous libraries and knowledge centers of Nalanda and Takshshila, the pillage and sacking of countless temples and other religious places of worship such as Somnath Temple, and the impoverishment of the country through the wanton loot of its natural resources are some of the examples of negative influences of politics on the development process.



Social Role

While reform usually comes from within the society, there are various examples where political developments have given birth to a social reaction and reform process. One such example is the Communal Award announced by the British Government in early 1930s which sought to separate the Depressed/ Backward Classes from the fold of Hinduism and thus drive another wedge in the unity of Indian people and which led to the Poona Pact and the campaign against untouchability launched by Mahatma Gandhi. This, and the dominant role of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar in drafting the constitution, later led to the enactment of constitutional safeguards for Schedule Castes and Tribes in the form of reservation in government jobs and educational institutions.

In the early days of the Company Raj, seeing the plight of the Indian people under the religious orthodoxy and taking advantage of the rule by foreigners, Raja Rammohun Roy, Dwarkanath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar etc. relentlessly campaigned for the abolition of sati, widow remarriage, promotion of English language and reform within Hinduism and ushered in the Bengal Renaissance. None of this was possible under the old rulers for whom the religious orthodoxy comprised a crucial support base.

The Post Independence period has seen various initiatives by the modern political leadership for the abolition of superstitious practices such as child marriage, empowerment of women through reservation in local bodies, eradication of deadly diseases such as polio through a sustained campaign and discouragement to blind faith through promotion of scientific thinking and enquiry.

Economic Role

The most recent memory of the amount of destruction that political leadership can bring to bear down upon the fortunes of a region is that of the experience of colonialism. This experience is not unique to India and is shared by various nation states of the world. The deindustrialization and impoverishment of India for nearly 200 years through colonial policies, as detailed by the early nationalists such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, R C Dutt etc. financed the industrialization and development of Britain.

If one looks at the global level, one would find that major scientific advancements in recent memory were made as a result of war. While World War I heralded the arrival of the Mustard Gas, World War II hastened the entry of the Atomic Bomb. The Spanish Conquistadors were able to conquer a large part of Latin America because of gunpowder, and the same allowed Tipu Sultan to introduce the first rockets in modern warfare.

In the post World War II period, the establishment of the Bretton Woods Institutions such as World Bank and IMF by victorious allied powers, still determines the economic equations between the developed and the developing as well as the least developed countries today. At the national level, the politics of federalism and the distribution of resources between various states signify the role political leadership at the central and state level plays in shaping the developmental graph of the nation.



Conclusion

After more than 4 decades of socialist license-permit raj, Indian political leadership intervened to liberalize the economy in 1991 and effect a much needed course correction required to preserve the credibility of the Indian economy and to take it to new heights. Since then, the aspirations of the people have only grown.

In the 21st century India, responding to the needs of the population for jobs and basic necessities like housing, clothing, transportation etc. the political leadership has begun to move from the politics of identity to the politics of development. Recent voter behavior too indicates that different sections, especially the youth, is more likely to vote for candidates who focus on results rather than rhetoric. In an era of automation, innovation and competition, only a dynamic and focused leadership can usher in the security and prosperity required for the sustenance of a country with as large a population as India’s.     

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Interrogating Fake News and the Post Factual Era

When Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, one of the movies in his iconic Apu Triology was released, it faced a lot of criticism at home for showcasing India’s poverty. Responding to the criticism, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister had said – “What is wrong about showcasing India’s poverty? Everyone knows that we are a poor country. The question is: are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it?”

The question posed by Pandit Nehru is relevant not only domestically, but on a global scenario today, when sensitivity to facts is on a decline in a “post-factual” world. The decision by voters in the United Kingdom to vote in favor of Brexit and those in the United States in favor of Donald Trump, in-spite of overwhelming evidence detailing the ill-advisability of such a move, signals a worrying trend for the future of the information age.

However, this essay must begin by interrogating the root cause in the decline of credibility of facts – the decline of the credibility of traditional news media outlets themselves.

Credibility of Traditional Media Outlets


With rapidly advancing information technology, the nature of mass media itself has undergone a complete change. In India alone, 240 million people own a smart phone, while 500 million own a feature phone. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMI), 370 million people are using the internet in our country, the majority through their smart phones. Globally, the numbers are even higher.

Access to the internet and proliferation of social media platforms has meant that today, each and every one is a content generator. This means that when each and everyone with a smart phone and an opinion begins to publish and air their biases, not necessarily with supporting evidence, views overwhelm the news itself. In such a scenario, traditional media outlets are seen less as a “reliable source” and more as a part of the “establishment”.

As a result, there has been a rise of the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ which has filled the void left behind by the declining credibility of these traditional media outlets.

What is Fake News?

Publishing and circulating misleading and factually incorrect information deliberately for one’s own gain is known as ‘fake news’. While the rise of this phenomenon has come at the cost of the credibility of facts, it has also helped in legitimizing hate speech towards specific communities and reducing their participation in mainstream discourse by demoralizing and marginalizing them.

Fake news is built upon ‘confirmation bias’ – which is the tendency of online information consumers to subscribe to the viewpoint which confirms their previously help beliefs. The phenomenon started with fringe online portals which peddled bizarre conspiracy theories taking advantage of this confirmation bias to drive more ‘clicks’ to their platforms and hence generate more revenue. Soon, it had repercussions far beyond what was initially imagined.

The Unique Selling Point (USP) of social media and ‘app’ based services – real time transmission of information – which made them so popular in the first place, contributed hugely to the rise of fake news as the impact of such false information was also in real time. In a recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 2/3rd of the Americans surveyed admitted that ‘fake news’ added to a ‘lot of confusion’ regarding the recently concluded election process.

Alarm bells have been ringing in Europe where elections are to take place in various countries. Germany has warned Facebook of a 500,000 Euro fine if it fails to control the dissemination of fake news and an Italian regulator has directed the European Union to establish an agency for the same.

Dangers in a ‘Post-Factual’ Era

When the credibility of facts based on evidence is exhausted, people tend to turn to their political leadership in their quest for ‘truth’. This provides for a perfect opportunity for the rise of authoritarian/ dictatorial regimes.

In a post-factual era, censorship and curbs on freedom of expression are a likely scenario as attempt to quell every reasonable criticism of the authorities is made. Additionally, news is replaced by propaganda to keep the support of people for the regime at an all time high. It is probably concerns like these that have pushed the sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” through the roof.

Finally, the most pressing danger which can be caused by an authoritarian regime in a ‘post-factual’ era is the neglect of issues of critical and immediate concern such as climate change. By the time responsible leadership takes cognizance of these issues, it might just be too late.



Conclusion – Restoring the Credibility of Facts

To combat the dangers of authoritarian regimes in a post-factual era as well as the dangers of ‘fake news’, the answer is not censorship – it is more speech. A concerted effort by governments, social media portals, traditional media outlets and most importantly, by concerned citizens themselves, to rebut fake news in real time in order to minimize its spread and impact is necessary.

The dawn of a post-factual era also underscores the importance of independent fact-checkers as well as human editors to combat the political tool of ‘alternative facts’, which can end up causing long lasting damage to the credibility of the system of government as well as the continuity of its policy objectives. Programs like Escape Your Bubble, which expose online consumers of information to news outside their bubble in order to counter their confirmation bias are also the need of the hour.

Last but not the least; global consultations between all relevant stakeholders are required to decide upon the mechanisms to be adopted by social media outlets to filter fake news.

Only through concerted efforts and joint action, can the credibility of facts be restored so that they are not ignored by the general public while exercising their franchise and taking decisions which will impact the future of generations to come.