The One Key Element That Makes Indian EVMs Different and ‘Unhackable’

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Elon Musk, the influential CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, recently ignited a political debate in India with his comments on electronic voting machines (EVMs) on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Although his remarks were not specifically directed at India, they have reverberated through the Indian political landscape, prompting responses from prominent leaders.

Political Reactions in India

Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress and Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party voiced concerns about the reliability of India’s EVMs following Musk’s comments. Yadav even retweeted Musk’s post, amplifying the discussion within India, with Gandhi calling EVMs in India practically a black box. However, many experts and observers believe that these political leaders are making an unnecessary fuss, stirring controversy without substantial evidence to support their claims.

The Curious Case of Puerto Rico

Musk’s comments came in the wake of a statement by Robert F. Kennedy Jr, an Independent candidate in the upcoming US presidential election, who expressed concerns about the voting process in Puerto Rico. Kennedy highlighted issues detected in EVMs used there, noting that while irregularities were identified, they were corrected thanks to paper trails. He argued that the absence of such paper trails could lead to significant problems and advocated for a return to paper ballots.

The problems in Puerto Rico were attributed to software issues with machines supplied by Dominion Voting Systems, as per AP. Jessika Padilla Rivera, the interim president of Puerto Rico’s electoral commission, explained that these issues caused the machines to incorrectly calculate total votes. Over 6,000 Dominion machines were used in the primaries, and the errors stemmed from the digital files used to export results. Some machines reported lower vote counts than paper records, reversed totals, or recorded zero votes for certain candidates, leading to concerns about the reliability of these systems.

Dominion Voting Systems and Its Coloured History

Dominion Voting Systems were also used in the 2020 US elections, in which former US President Donald Trump lost. Following the upset, many Trump supporters questioned the validity of Dominion Voting Systems’ voting and counting machines. One of Trump’s closest allies, Mike Lindell, a mattress magnate and a TV commentator, spewed all sorts of conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems, which led to a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit.

In September 2022, Dominion was the subject of a lawsuit against them. Officials from Fulton County, Pennsylvania, alleged that computer forensic experts had discovered a Python script on one of the voting machines and found indications that the machine had been connected to an external system in Canada. However, the lawsuit was dismissed a year later, in September 2023.

Indian EVMs: Super Secure

In response to Musk’s comments, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a former Minister of Electronics and Information Technology in India, called Musk’s statement a “sweeping generalization.” He emphasized that India’s EVMs are uniquely designed and cannot be reprogrammed, highlighting their security and reliability.

India’s EVMs are distinctive because they are developed domestically by the Technical Experts Committee (TEC) of the Election Commission in collaboration with two public sector undertakings: Bharat Electronics Ltd. (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. (ECIL). These machines are designed to be tamper-proof and enter a ‘Safety Mode’ if any tampering is detected, rendering them inoperable.

The latest third-generation EVMs, known as M3 machines, cannot connect to the internet. They do not feature the physical components to connect to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, making them immune to remote hacking attempts. Each EVM operates as a standalone device, similar to a basic calculator, and does not rely on any external power source. Instead, they are powered by an internal battery installed by BEL.

Most important is the microchip at the heart of Indian EVM systems. It is a uniquely designed, one-time programmable or masked chip, which means it cannot be overwritten. This design ensures that the program used in the EVMs cannot be reprogrammed, adding another layer of security and making them highly resistant to tampering. The machines used in most other countries use a generic chip, which is reprogrammed after every election. In such a scenario, it is more likely to malfunction.

EVMs in India are specifically built for voting and are not general-purpose computing devices that are retrofitted and loaded with programs designed for voting. Each machine is a “unique electronic island,” ensuring a high level of security. Indian EVMs are not accessible remotely, as they are standalone machines not connected to any network or external devices. They do not use any operating system, further enhancing their security.

Security Through Obscurity

In contrast, many countries, including the US, use electronic voting devices manufactured by private companies, which are often considered less secure. Some foreign experts have criticized India’s EVMs as outdated and in need of modernization. However, experts at the Election Commission of India argue that their perceived obsolescence actually adds a layer of security. Hacking 5.5 million individual EVMs is virtually impossible, and the randomization process used in elections provides additional protection.

India’s EVMs are designed to be tamper-proof and secure, with multiple layers of protection to prevent hacking or manipulation. Despite the concerns raised by political leaders in response to Elon Musk’s comments, the unique design and stringent security measures of India’s EVMs ensure the integrity of the voting process. As the debate continues, it remains crucial for countries to address and mitigate any concerns regarding the reliability and security of their voting systems, ensuring that the democratic process is upheld and trusted by all citizens.

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