Researcher arrested for alleged voting machine theft

A security researcher who investigated electronic voting machines (EVM) used in Indian elections was arrested by police in Mumbai on Saturday. He is charged with stealing one of the machines, police sources said Monday.

Hari Prasad and other researchers released a video earlier this year demonstrating how, after tinkering with the internal electronics of an EVM, they could perform attacks on it that could manipulate the outcome of an election. The EVMs used in India are made by two Indian government-owned companies and the one Prasad used was made by Electronics Corporation of India.

Prasad has so far refused to seek bail and has been remanded to police custody until Aug. 26, said GVL Narasimha Rao, president of the Citizens’ Forum for promoting Verifiability, Transparency and Accountability in Indian Elections (VeTA).

In April, Prasad told IDG News Service that his group of researchers obtained access to a working EVM that was used in an election through an anonymous source.

One of the attacks demonstrated by the researchers involved replacing the display board of the machine with a look-alike component that could be instructed through a Bluetooth connection on a mobile phone to steal a percentage of the votes in favor of a chosen candidate.

Another attack used a pocket-sized device that clips to the memory which records the number of votes stored in the EVM and can change the tally in the period between the closing of the election and the counting of the votes, which in India can take several weeks.

The EVM used by Prasad was a control unit that had been kept in a locked area by the District Election Officer (DEO) in Mumbai, India’s Election Commission said on Sunday in a statement on its website. When the machine was discovered missing, the DEO filed a complaint with the Mumbai police on May 12.

Rao of VeTA contends that the researchers did not commit theft as the EVM was provided by an insider from the Election Commission. Officials were not available for comment, but the commission did say in its statement that possession of stolen property is a crime under the Indian Penal Code.

Prasad met with the Election Commission on Aug. 10, about three months after the complaint of a stolen EVM. The commission described the meeting as “cordial” and that it was open to receiving suggestions for improving the system. The meeting was unrelated to the ongoing police investigation, an Election Commission official said on the condition of anonymity.

EVMs have been opposed by a number of political parties, which wrote to the Election Commission in April expressing concerns about the reliability of the machines. Those parties urged the Election Commission to organize a meeting with all of the political parties in the country, Rao said.

There also have been problems with the machines. In an election in July in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the Election Commission was forced to use ballot boxes as there were more candidates in some constituencies than could be listed in the EVMs used.

The move to field a large number of candidates that were not serious contestants may have been deliberately planned by a local political party, Telangana Rashtra Samiti, which is opposed to EVMs, according to political analysts.

VeTA has advocated that a verifiable paper trail should be provided for EVMs or the country should go back to traditional ballot boxes, Rao said.