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Is it time to block and chain the EVMs?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-06-2017 Sai Sri Ram Sribhashyam

The electronic voting machine (EVM) hackathon, organized earlier this month by the Election Commission of India (ECI), may have been a non-starter but allegations of EVM tampering by political parties have certainly planted seeds of mistrust among the people. Studies allege that EVMs have hardware and software vulnerabilities that can be exploited to commit election malpractices.

Contemporary and emerging technologies seek to address the core incompetencies in the infrastructure of the voting system through advances in networking and encryption methods. An emerging technology called blockchain is in various stages of implementation across the world for voting and other public services. Due to its unique attributes of trust, transparency and immutability, such a system is expected to mitigate issues like vote manipulation in political processes. In India, given the favourable conditions of improved infrastructure and interest, the time is ripe for the ECI to explore blockchain technology as a future alternative to EVMs.

Blockchain can be thought of as a public account ledger, an immutable, transparent and permanent one. Each transaction is recorded and stored in the ledger that is out on a public bulletin board. Every transaction adds a block to the chain of transactions and each one is evaluated by every user based on algorithms they’ve agreed upon. Rather than being kept in single location, a copy of the blockchain is stored on every user’s server so that a user cannot alter it without other users finding out. Even though blockchain was conceived for financial transactions, its characteristics make it an apt solution that can support voting systems.

In blockchain voting, each transaction is similar to a vote and through the use of multiple blockchains along with public key encryption, the voting process is secured while protecting the anonymity of voters. The votes can then be randomized more than three times in the digital ballot box so that voters’ identities are not revealed. After the polls are closed, a separate blockchain application is created for the counting of votes in the digital ballot box. That blockchain should match the public bulletin board’s blockchain, proving that the online voting system has operated correctly. Blockchains are transparent and designed to have a decentralized authority which ensures that control is not in one hand and the process is visible to the public always. Further, the audit trail of the transactions combined with public key encryption solves the issue of auditability.

Some countries are already experimenting with blockchain technology in voting processes and for delivering public services. Australia has declared its plan for using blockchain in voting and began projects for prototyping the technology a couple of years ago. In 2014, Denmark’s Liberal Alliance political party voted in a blockchain-based system for its internal elections. Such systems have also been adopted in Norway and Spain. Malta with a small population of 450,000, is about to embrace blockchain in land registry, voting and other national services.

In South Korea, a community government used the blockchain platform in a local funding ballot where around 9,000 votes were submitted. The platform made use of smart contracts to facilitate the voting process. Blocko, the Korean firm that developed the platform, claims that the technology, developed in-house, helped register data, including voters’ information, voting contents and more, on a blockchain.

In India, given the deep penetration of cellphones and the unique identification (Aadhaar) system, blockchain could be a practical and feasible tool to fight voter fraud and alleviate vote authentication and validation concerns. Aadhaar cards and electronic-know your customer (e-KYC) norms are already becoming mainstream. These critical infrastructure components can be leveraged to implement blockchain solutions in voting and public services such as land registrations, public-private contracts and other service level agreements (SLA). The technology sector is also responding positively by increasing investments and resources. For instance, around 32 blockchain firms were founded in India in 2016, up from 23 founded before 2016, according to a fintech report by PwC.

The Reserve Bank of India’s research arm has also developed proof of concepts with a few banks on blockchain, and it said in its white paper that “the results are quite encouraging, giving comfort and confidence in the implementability of blockchain technology”. Further, the State Bank of India initiated a national blockchain bank consortium earlier this year to build and implement blockchain solutions that can minimize fraud and improve the efficiency of the banking system. This proactive study and prototyping of emerging technologies creates an encouraging environment for other independent government agencies to venture out and experiment.

Indeed, keeping in mind the emerging and potential threats to the current system, it is essential to experiment with new technologies that can potentially secure the system. Conducting research, building proof of concepts and end-to-end pilots by leveraging the burgeoning activity in blockchain technology can be undertaken by the ECI. This will not only help in understanding the nuances of blockchain that can be adapted to the Indian voting system, but also answer critical questions regarding compliance with the norms and principles of voting.

Sai Sri Ram Sribhashyam is a graduate student of public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.-

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