EVMs: Patenting secrecy

Sarkari Secrets
Last Updated 31 January 2021, 01:51 IST

While winners are happy with EVMs, only unsuccessful candidates blame them for electoral defeats without providing any proof, and the mass-media laps it up without questioning,” Karnataka’s Chief Secretary lamented recently, on the occasion of National Voter’s Day. This oft-repeated thesis lies at the heart of the controversy surrounding voting machines, which are not yet self-aware to defend themselves.

It does not require artificial intelligence to recognise the obvious. Only a losing candidate will question the performance of EVMs -- duh! This is why the mechanisation of the vote recording process must be robust enough to convince an unsuccessful candidate that he or she lost fairly. Second, the system should be reliable enough to remove any doubt in voters’ minds as to whether or not their preferences have been recorded and counted faithfully. Transparency of the EVM’s innards is a precondition for satisfying these bedrock principles of a free and fair electoral process. Strangely, the government, the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the EVM manufacturing companies have turned critical information about voting machines into sarkari secrets.

While deciding an RTI appeal in September 2018, the Central Information Commission (CIC) directed the ECI to consider publishing a wealth of software-related information about EVMs, in order to strengthen public trust in them. The ECI has rejected this author’s repeated RTI applications to inspect records of action taken to comply with this recommendation, on the pretext that the matter is under consideration. Election Commissioners have come and gone, but no decision yet.

Meanwhile, the central public sector enterprises BEL and ECIL, which have a State-guaranteed duopoly over the manufacture and supply of EVMs, have refused to divulge crucial information such as technical evaluation committee reports on VVPATs, operational manuals of VVPAT Symbol Loading Units and the list of engineers hired for preparing and managing the voting machines in every election, and much more. The government’s Standards Testing and Quality Control Directorate holds details of how it audits the EVM and VVPAT software close to its chest, like a card-game player. All these refusals are pending adjudication before the CIC, since 2019.

In February 2019, on a citizen’s plea seeking a sample of an EVM, the CIC directed ECI to reconsider its reply which was not in tune with the procedural requirements of the RTI Act. Please note, the CIC had not directed the supply of a sample EVM. Nevertheless, the ECI moved the Delhi High Court to get even this simple direction quashed. Nine months later, the court, inexplicably, went into the merits of the RTI plea and ruled that EVMs cannot be “sold” to the citizen.

Over the years, the ECI has invited ‘doubting toms’ and opposition parties to hackathons to show if and how EVMs can be tampered. There are few takers for these challenges because the ECI does not permit an outsider to open these machines or examine the embedded software. Given ECI’s consistent “you can’t touch this” approach, many a citizen will remain unconvinced until independent experts give their verdict.

Popular culture is rife with EVM-related banter. One stand-up comic recommends their use for conducting the plebiscite in Kashmir, promised long ago. Let alone decide about remaining in the Union, EVMs will vote overwhelmingly for the ruling party, he quips.

Undue secrecy is no antidote for deep-rooted doubts about EVMs. Interestingly, their source code has not been disclosed even to the Patents Controller. All information about anything patented must be placed in the public domain, under the Patents Act. That is not happening either, let alone denials under the RTI Act.

In an RTI reply to this author, one of the companies admitted that the patent application for their model of the VVPAT machine was pending. Meanwhile, the EVM patents granted to BEL and ECIL will lapse this year. The law in India prohibits the evergreening of patents. By the ECI’s own admission, EVMs have undergone significant changes over the years. Will patents be granted for the latest-generation machines? Will all information about them be published as per law? Doubts will persist until there is full disclosure of critical information.

In God, we trust; all claims mundane, require evidence. Bingo! Mr Chief Secretary.

(Venkatesh Nayak wakes up every morning thinking someone somewhere is hiding something)

(Published 30 January 2021, 18:30 IST)

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