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Mr. Hari K. Prasad - Hacking The Indian EVM
While the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) were banned in several countries because they are not secure and allow easy manipulation; world's largest democracy, India went full way with the EVMs in 2009 elections. A team of researchers led by Mr. Hari. K Prasad, Managing Director of NetIndia Group Of Companies demonstrated that the Indian EVMs could be easily hacked and questioned the integrity of the machines. It surely took lot of guts to burst the claims made by Election Commission Of India that the EVMs were tamper proof. We are proud & honored to have Mr. Prasad on CE to talk about hacking of Indian Electronic Voting Machines -
CE: Hello Mr. Prasad, could you briefly tell us about your background & profession?
Mr. Prasad: Founder, Chairman & Managing Director of Netindia Group of Companies, a diversified group with operations spanning areas as diverse as embedded communications, online media streaming technologies. I am a drop out in Electronic engineering with a lot of passion towards embedded electronics, and this made me start Netindia a pure R&D company in the field of Embedded communications.
CE: Why did you and your team decide to hack the Indian EVM?
Mr. Prasad: It was initiated by an NGO which has done Election Watch in our state A.P during 2009 General Elections. As election observers they found lot of discrepancies in the functioning of EVMs at several booths and subsequent results in those booths strengthened their apprehensions. The NGO approached us after being denied by other organizations to take up study on EVMs fearing threats from the beneficiaries of election fraud. Accepting to do a study on vulnerabilities in EVM design I requested the other two researchers (who played vital role in exposing EVM vulnerabilities in their respective countries) to participate in the research on Indian EVMs and the rest you can find in our website.
CE: How did you get started with the hack project? How did you get access to EVM?
Mr. Prasad: Initially we made a look alike following the specs mentioned in the EVM manual, demonstrated before press and political parties how an electronic device can subvert elections without getting detected. Election Commission of India denied our allegations baseless as the machine used by us is look alike and no way can simulate the original. We were been challenged by CEC to demonstrate tampering in the original machine before them in their office while they record the whole proceeding. Accepting the challenge we visited the Election commission on 3rd of September 2009 but to our surprise the activity was abruptly stopped by the officials stating we are violating the IP rights of ECIL in our process hence they need some time to call us back to continue the process. We observed the panic situation among them after we started pointing the susceptible parts inside the design that are prone to attack. Later we received communication from ECI to demonstrate without opening the BOX laying uncommon conditions and completely ignoring insider threats, you can find the communication in the ECI website. Informally we were provided with the original machine used in the recent Elections through an anonymous source for a brief period, and the results are posted in our website. We were been requested not to disclose the source & Identity.
CE: Could you briefly explain the technique you used to hack the EVM?
Mr. Prasad: We demonstrated two types of attacks one attack involves replacing a small part of the machine with a look alike component that can be silently instructed through a mobile phone to steal votes in favor of a chosen candidate. Another attack uses a pocket sized device to manipulate votes stored in the EVM memory between the election and the public counting session. For more details please refer to our research paper in https://indiaevm.org.
CE: You have mentioned that even basic cryptography was not used in designing these machines. Could you elaborate more on this?
Mr. Prasad: The votes polled are stored in two external EEPROMs. As there was no encryption of data while storing the votes it is easy to retrieve and manipulate the votes stored in the memory, And also it takes no time to understand the control bits/security bits used to operate the machine.
CE: Doesn’t your coming out publicly with the various modes of meddling the EVMs now make the system more exposed to attacks?
Mr. Prasad: No, we feel it brings awareness among the people to become more vigilant on such possibilities.
CE: Is there a way to tell whether an EVM has been tampered or not?
Mr. Prasad: Yes for certain attacks If ECI do a technical audit of these machines at periodic intervals. Still the program in the main chip which cannot be read even by the manufacturer remains a Vector.
CE: Now that your team has discovered that EVMs can be hacked, can you offer a solution to the problem. That is, can your team suggest changes to the design & circuit of EVM that would make it tamper proof?
Mr. Prasad: We suggest an audit-able paper trail to be added in these machines, But for a common man who doesn't understand technology, Ballot paper is the golden standard though it is cumbersome and educated feels it as reverting to stone age.
CE: Thank you for participating in CE's Small Talk. What is your message to our CEans aka Crazy Engineers?
Mr. Prasad: Be blunt not diplomatic when you find flaws. Thanks for the opportunity and my best wishes to the community.