Can EVMs Be Really Hacked?

The recently concluded elections in India’s largest and most populous state saw some fierce competition among political parties and a surprise outcome. Out of the many things that happened after the results, one matter that stirred a controversy was the accusation by one of the losing party of EVM hacking. While the basis for that accusation was quite ridiculous, this was again echoed by Arvind Kejriwal(of AAP).

The Nation Needs to Know!! (in Arnub’s voice)

Almost everyone made this blame-game a case of sore-loser, but some of the protruding questions regarding EVM safety remained unanswered amid all this. So can EVMs really be hacked, tampered or rigged(whatever you call it)? We will take a look at the major ways in which an EVM can be compromised and the hypothetical probability of those happening it. So let’s start.

A Little History & Basics

EVMs or Electronic Voting Machines, were introduced into Indian elections in the late 1990s. The reason for their use was to reduce the logistics & operational costs associated with the conventional Paper-ballot system.

EVM Facts
Some Common Facts about EVMs | Clipartfox

EVMs comprise of two units, as seen above. During the elections we see only the Ballot unit as the Control unit is kept out of sight with a Control officer. The Control Unit is where the votes are stored. If you have voted in the past, you may remember that at the polling station, you are asked to wait for a beep and then to press the button. This beep is a indication that the control unit is ready to receive a vote.

Button Press BU
The Red light lits up after you press the corresponding button.

After you cast your vote, the unit gets locked and only unlocks after the Control Officer unlocks it after pressing a button, for the next candidate. This technique prevents someone from casting multiple votes and ensures the One Candidate One Vote rule is confirmed. Also the unit can record a maximum of 5 votes per minute, a security feature which renders booth capturing futile, as we will see.

The Plausible Hacking Scenarios

It’s not the first time that EVM’s security has been questioned. In 2010, BJPs own Subramanian Swamy filed a PIL proposing many ways to prevent EVM fraud. Out of all the ways demonstrated, Supreme Court recommended the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail method to be adopted.

This method gives the voter a paper receipt on which the candidates name for which he or she voted is printed.

This way, a voter is sure that his vote isn’t manipulated in any way. The VVPAT was implemented on pilot basis in the 2014 national elections and will be available everywhere in the 2019 elections.

VVPAT System

So coming back to our original query, can EVMs be hacked? Well, in line with the Not every electronic item is tamper-proof, EVMs are also electronics machines, in fact based on quite old technology, and thus they are also not cent percent safe. Their hacking is possible, but certainly not as easily as one may believe. To explore this question further, we will list four ways in which an EVM can be rigged and the chances of those happening.

1. Any Button > Same Party

The first scenario is the one speculated in the current accusations. Mayawati, the politician who voiced the initial concern after results, has stated that EVMs have been tampered in certain of her constituencies so that any vote always went to the wining party. While it sounds believable, we need to think practically to dissect this. Firstly, for such thing to happen, EVMs need to tampered at circuit-level. One needs to change the actual wire or connections of the buttons or modify the firmware of the micro-controller in the EVM.

The simple but still complicated insides of an EVM

Both of these are next to impossible as EVMs are guarded 24×7 and their location is unknown. Even if we believe that some-how someone has access to EVMs, this tampering needs to be done on several hundreds of EVMs to be effective enough to change the election outcome. Further weakening the chances, is the procedure of random checking of EVMs before using them in a booth. Before the polling starts, personnel from each party is allowed to randomly select some EVMs to check whether they are in order or not.

2. Wireless Interception

This second method has actually been carried out and demonstrated by scientist & technologists J. Alex Halderman, Hari K. Prasad & Rop Gonggrijp in 2010 after discussions regarding EVM’s safety erupted.

In the video, they changed the EVM’s display with a custom designed one which had mobile phone controlled Bluetooth chip.

Using this, the display showed only certain numbers as commanded from the phone. The video also shows how the Memory ROM chip can be re-programmed to store altered vote values.

While all this is technically true, one aspect they didn’t talk about is how hard it is to perform. The first step for doing all this, getting hands on an EVM was hard even for them, as they had mentioned in their FAQ that the EVM was provided by a source who has asked to remain anonymous. 

EVM Display Tampering_small
The hacked Display module used by the researchers | IndiaEVM

Secondly, making a custom circuit which can be interfaced with the existing EVM circuit is not a one-night task. Again I would like to remind that the EVMs are allotted randomly to polling stations and the pairing of candidates & button numbers is also decided few days prior to polling. So the chances of this happening are very little unless the Election Commission is compromised on all levels.

3. Booth Hijacking

This third way has been actually happening in many elections across India. If you want to know exactly what is booth hijacking the following excerpt from the movie Gangs of Wasseypur 2 portrays it beautifully(I know GoW is entertaining but please do return to the article after watching).

Jump to 2:09:43 for the scene | Voot

In similar way as shown in the movie, miscreants could intimidate the booth officials, take over the EVM machines and go on a button-pressing spree. But this would not take them too far as EVM has a security feature which allows a maximum of only 5 votes per minute. So in a case even if the booth is under siege for 1 hour(highly unlikely), only a max of 300 votes can be cast. And in any case any such hijacking & tampering incident results in re-voting for the booth.

4. Rigging During or Before Counting

The fourth and last way is also one of the ways which people think has more likelihood of happening. The reason is because of the increased security during elections lead many to think that the time between the elections and results is where there are more chances of such things happening.

EVM vote Counting
Pic Courtesy hindustantimes

Views from My Personal Experience

In this area I have a little personal experience for sharing. I have served as a micro-observer and also been allotted counting duty during a local election. To prevent any cheating & biased accusation, counting duty is generally given to third parties such as government teachers, professors, bankers etc.

The counting centre is guarded like a fortress in advance of 24 hours before the result day.

No mobiles phone are allowed inside. And there is no leeway in this regard, if a phone is found you are escorted outside immediately. The EVMs(only the control unit) are bought sealed, having at-least 4 different seals. During counting there is a personnel from each party present, to whom you have show the figure from each CU. Moreover there are personnel from Election Commission and few micro observers always lurking in the same room to keep an eye on the whole process.

EVM Connections
The Connections on an EVM’s Control Unit

And this was during a small local elections, the arrangements are much stricter during larger state elections. As for any technical tampering angle, the window for doing it is very small. EVMs are bought to the local taluk or Collector’s office only the previous night of the result day.

Cool Tip: Want to know more about how elections are conducted in India. Like absolute minute details? This Presentation from ECI covers it all.

So What’s the Final Conclusion?

After considering all the situations, one thing is clear, that EVMs are not absolutely safe. But as is any other system. From technical point of view, there are weaknesses in EVM, but exploiting them is really really difficult. It’s not something like shown in movies, where a hacker opens a black window, types some commands in green color font and instantly EVMs across the state get reprogrammed. Such things only happen in movies.

Little Poll

The chip inside EVMs is permanently programmed whose firmware cannot be modified. Also they don’t have any wireless interface and don’t even run on mains supply. So any wireless hacking or powerline hacking methods are not possible. And we must remember that all the EVMs are checked by a Engineer of BEL for any tampering before their use.

The only scenario in which mass-compromise of EVM can occur, is when the Election Commission is itself compromise. At which point we would have bigger problems to solve than to think about stupid EVMs. If you have any views or comments, do share with us through comments.

Also See

Join the newsletter

A geek, gamer, DIY enthusiast who loves to read about technology, computers and especially How-Things-Work!!