February 21, 2018

Electronic Voting Researcher Arrested Over Anonymous Source

Updates: 8/28 Alex Halderman: Indian E-Voting Researcher Freed After Seven Days in Police Custody
8/26 Alex Halderman: Indian E-Voting Researcher Remains in Police Custody
8/24 Ed Felten: It’s Time for India to Face its E-Voting Problem
8/22 Rop Gonggrijp: Hari is in jail 🙁

About four months ago, Ed Felten blogged about a research paper in which Hari Prasad, Rop Gonggrijp, and I detailed serious security flaws in India’s electronic voting machines. Indian election authorities have repeatedly claimed that the machines are “tamperproof,” but we demonstrated important vulnerabilities by studying a machine provided by an anonymous source.

The story took a disturbing turn a little over 24 hours ago, when my coauthor Hari Prasad was arrested by Indian authorities demanding to know the identity of that source.

At 5:30 Saturday morning, about ten police officers arrived at Hari’s home in Hyderabad. They questioned him about where he got the machine we studied, and at around 8 a.m. they placed him under arrest and proceeded to drive him to Mumbai, a 14 hour journey.

The police did not state a specific charge at the time of the arrest, but it appears to be a politically motivated attempt to uncover our anonymous source. The arresting officers told Hari that they were under “pressure [from] the top,” and that he would be left alone if he would reveal the source’s identity.

Hari was allowed to use his cell phone for a time, and I spoke with him as he was being driven by the police to Mumbai: (Video on YouTube)

The Backstory

India uses paperless electronic voting machines nationwide, and the Election Commission of India, the country’s highest election authority, has often stated that the machines are “perfect” and “fully tamper-proof.” Despite widespread reports of election irregularities and suspicions of electronic fraud, the Election Commission has never permitted security researchers to complete an independent evaluation nor allowed the public to learn crucial technical details of the machines’ inner workings. Hari and others in India repeatedly offered to collaborate with the Election Commission to better understand the security of the machines, but they were not permitted to complete a serious review.

Then, in February of this year, an anonymous source approached Hari and offered a machine for him to study. This source requested anonymity, and we have honored this request. We have every reason to believe that the source had lawful access to the machine and made it available for scientific study as a matter of conscience, out of concern over potential security problems.

Later in February, Rop Gonggrijp and I joined Hari in Hyderabad and conducted a detailed security review of the machine. We discovered that, far from being tamperproof, it suffers from a number of weaknesses. There are many ways that dishonest election insiders or other criminals with physical access could tamper with the machines to change election results. We illustrated two ways that this could happen by constructing working demonstration attacks and detailed these findings in a research paper, Security Analysis of India’s Electronic Voting Machines. The paper recently completed peer review and will appear at the ACM Computer and Communications Security conference in October.

Our work has produced a hot debate in India. Many commentators have called for the machines to be scrapped, and 16 political parties representing almost half of the Indian parliament have expressed serious concerns about the use of electronic voting.

Earlier this month at EVT/WOTE, the leading international workshop for electronic voting research, two representatives from the Election Commission of India joined in a panel discussion with Narasimha Rao, a prominent Indian electronic voting critic, and me. (I will blog more about the panel in coming days.) After listening to the two sides argue over the security of India’s voting machines, 28 leading experts in attendance signed a letter to the Election Commission stating that “India’s [electronic voting machines] do not today provide security, verifiability, or transparency adequate for confidence in election results.”

Nevertheless, the Election Commission continues to deny that there is a security problem. Just a few days ago, Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi told reporters that the machines “are practically totally tamper proof.”

Effects of the Arrest

This brings us to today’s arrest. Hari is spending Saturday night in a jail cell, and he told me he expects to be interrogated by the authorities in the morning. Hari has retained a lawyer, who will be flying to Mumbai in the next few hours and who hopes to be able to obtain bail within days. Hari seemed composed when I spoke to him, but he expressed great concern for his wife and children, as well as for the effect his arrest might have on other researchers who might consider studying electronic voting in India.

If any good has come from this, it’s that there has been an outpouring of support for Hari. He has received positive messages from people all over India.

Unfortunately, the entire issue distracts from the primary problem: India’s electronic voting machines have fundamental security flaws, and do not provide the transparency necessary for voters to have confidence in elections. To fix these problems, the Election Commission will need help from India’s technical community. Arresting and interrogating a key member of that community is enormously counterproductive.


Professor J. Alex Halderman is a computer scientist at the University of Michigan.

India's Electronic Voting Machines Have Security Problems

A team led by Hari Prasad, Alex Halderman, and Rop Gonggrijp released today a technical paper detailing serious security problems with the electronic voting machines (EVMs) used in India.

The independent Electoral Commission of India, which is generally well respected, has dealt poorly with previous questions about EVM security. The chair of the Electoral Commission has called the machines “infallible” and “perfect” and has rejected any suggestion that security improvements are even possible. I hope the new study will cause the EC to take a more realistic approach to EVM security.

The researchers got their hands on a real Indian EVM which they were able to examine and analyze. They were unable to extract the software running in the machine (because that would have required rendering the machine unusable for elections, which they had agreed not to do) so their analysis focused on the hardware. They were able to identify several attacks that manipulated the hardware, either by replacing components or by clamping something on to a chip on the motherboard to modify votes. They implemented demonstration attacks, actually building proof-of-concept substitute hardware and vote-manipulation devices.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of India’s EVMs is how simple they are. Simplicity is a virtue in security as in engineering generally, and researchers (including me) who have studied US voting machines have advocated simplifying their design. India’s EVMs show that while simplicity is good, it’s not enough. Unless there is some way to audit or verify the votes, even a simple system is subject to manipulation.

If you’re interested in the details, please read the team’s paper.

The ball is now in the Election Commission’s court. Let’s hope that they take steps to address the EVM problems, to give the citizens of the world’s largest democracy the transparent and accurate elections they deserve.