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EVM tampering row: Election Commission never used the term 'hackathon', says Nasim Zaidi

Otherwise known for its deftness in handling polls, the Election Commission of India has been in the eye of a storm of late with 16 political parties having questioned the veracity of the entire voting mechanism in the five state assembly elections held recently. Despite the EC's assurances that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) are secure, the alleging political parties were in no mood to listen forcing the poll panel to announce a 'hackathon' on the coming 3 June to find out if the voting machines can actually be tampered with.

The man who is in charge of looking after the affairs of voting in the country Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi, speaking exclusively to Firstpost, clarifies that the EVM is tamper proof and that the AAP’s demand for a 'hackathon' of these machines is not workable at all. Edited excerpts:

 EVM tampering row: Election Commission never used the term hackathon, says Nasim Zaidi

Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi. Image courtesy PIB

Only two political parties, Sharad Pawar's NCP and the CPM have responded to the EC's challenge whose deadline for registration was Friday (26 May)?

The EC gave an opportunity to all the political parties to prove that EVMs could be tampered with. Registration for political parties was fixed for 26 May. I cannot comment on why only two parties have responded to this challenge and why the other political parties have chosen not to respond. This was an opportunity for all political parties to come forward and dispel their doubts.

In all 16 political parties were vocal in their criticism against EVMs following the recent five state elections especially the Uttar Pradesh state elections. The Congress, the RJD, the Trinamool Congress had all expressed their apprehensions about the EVMs?

The whole attempt on the part of the EC has been to clear doubts, suspicions and aspersions that were being cast on the EC. The 12 May meeting, to which all political parties were invited, was an attempt on our part to show that our EVMs are tamper-proof. We provided full details about how the EVMs work. We invited nominees of recognised state and national parties which had participated in the recently held assembly elections in the five states to an EVM challenge on 3 June. Their first challenge is to prove that EVMs can be tampered with while polling and second that tampering can take place while the machine is kept in the EC's custody.

The most notable absentee is AAP which had led a veritable campaign against the EVMs. AAP did not attend the meeting because they did not like the terms you had laid down. They felt you should have allowed for an open hackathon?

I must clarify that the EC has never used this word hackathon. Only the IITs can explain the meaning of this term hackathon. If the reference is to a computer being hacked or else to ransomware or other forms of hacking, let me emphasise that out EVMs are stand alone machines. They are not connected to the internet. From where has this term appeared is something I do not understand. We have never used this word. Our machines are not connected with any network. I have clarified that we are not an IT company.

We have offered the political parties a demonstration challenge. If they can prove otherwise, we will stand corrected. Our machines remain 24x7 in our custody. They are kept in strong rooms and are guarded by the police. They never leave our custody and the annual maintenance is also conducted under our custody.

How many EVMs do you have in all?

In all, we have 1.5 million machines that have been manufactured by Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) and the Electronic Corporation of India (ECI). During election time, the machines are moved around in a random manner, no one knows which machine will go where. How can somebody say which machine will go where.

Even hypothetically, if we wanted to favour someone, how do we know in which polling booth a machine will go where. The candidate can use two methods to tamper with EVMs — first, a combination of keys on the control unit or ballot unit or both and second, the challenger can use external wireless, bluetooth, mobile phones device to tamper with the machines. But if the EVM becomes non-functional then a challenger will fail in his attempt. This is because our EVMs are devised to self-destruct if tampered with and will stop working. That is why the EC insists, our machines are tamper proof.

That may well be but EVMs have come in for strong criticism in countries such as Netherlands, Ireland and Germany?

The EVMs used in Netherlands, Ireland and Germany were privately manufactured and had no independent certification system unlike the very robust verification and certification system used in India. Our machines are stand alone and direct recording whereas in Netherlands data was transferred through CDs. Our EVMs store data internally. They are manufactured by leading PSUs (ECIL and BEL) with no third party involved.

In 2006, the government ordered an independent test of the machines. Two independent commissions were also asked to review the security and reliability features.

Several political parties insist we need to go back to the days of the ballot box?

We have travelled a long distance from then. The ballot papers suffered from many malpractices. Pharzi ballot papers were known to be printed and the counting was also found to be wrong in many cases. There were a lot of malpractices with that system. By contrast, the software program of EVMS cannot be read or modified as these are stand alone machines which cannot be connected to any other network, system or the internet. I would also like to emphasise that in order to ensure 100 percent reliability we conduct multiple layers of testing the software and hardware before and during the manufacturing of EVMs.

As a further attempt to dispel all criticisms and doubts, the EC is planning to buy paper audit trails?

Yes, all elections from this August onwards will use the paper audit trail. We are planning to buy over 1.6 million voter verifiable paper audit trail units for the EVMs keeping in mind the 2019 general election. After voting, the voter verifiable paper audit trail machine dispenses a paper slip with the name, serial number and symbol of the candidate voted for. The voter can see this paper being collected in the box and will be used for all future elections.

In 2013, the EC had taken a decision to start these verifiable paper audit trails but the funds took time in coming. The funds of Rs 3,200 crore has been released and the money has been transferred to both the Electronic Corporation of India and Bharat Electronics to start manufacturing them.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: May 27, 2017 22:03:27 IST

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