Indian e-voting researcher released on bail

An Indian security researcher who was arrested on Aug. 21 for the alleged theft of an electronic voting machine (EVM), was released on bail on Saturday by a magistrate in Mumbai.

Hari Prasad told Mumbai police that the machine had been brought to him in February by an unknown person whom he described as an activist opposed to EVMs.

The person had earlier visited his office in November with Dinesh Bachav, the husband of Shobha Bachav, a senior politician in Maharashtra state who had lost an election in October, Prasad told IDG News Service on Sunday.

Dinesh Bachav visited Prasad with about 25 others to ask him if he could show whether an EVM could be tampered with, Prasad said.

People question EVMs only when they lose an election, not when they win, Prasad added.

Prasad, who had already developed what he described as a "look-alike" EVM, including its electronics, showed the group how elections using an EVM could be tampered with. The group then asked him if he could do the same if he was provided with an EVM used in an election, and he confirmed that he could, Prasad said.

Shobha Bachav told a local newspaper, The Indian Express, that neither she nor her husband did not have a role in providing the EVM to Prasad, although she said that her husband and other people from Maharashtra had previously met with the researcher. "The claim that my husband or I have any role in helping him get the machine is a lie. His claim about finding flaws in the machine is also questionable," she told the newspaper.

Ravindra Wani, the Mumbai police officer investigating the case, said on Sunday that there was no evidence that the Bachavs had provided Prasad the machine.

Prasad, who was back in his home city, Hyderabad, on Sunday, said that two people delivered the EVM in February without prior notice to his office, on condition that it was returned to them the next day. One of the persons was present at the November meeting at which Dinesh Bachav was present.

By "coincidence," Prasad's foreign co-researchers were also in Hyderabad at the time, and they worked through the night to hack the EVM, Prasad said. The researchers, who were in India to address a conference on EVMs hosted by Indian opposition politician Subramanian Swamy, were visiting Prasad to see the EVM he had developed, and to work together on a paper on the vulnerability of EVMs, he added.

Prasad had told the police in Mumbai earlier in the investigation that he did not remember who gave him the EVM, Wani said. On Sunday, Prasad again maintained that he doesn't remember the people who gave him the machine. In a paper released in April, Prasad and associates said that the EVM was provided "by a source who has requested to remain anonymous".

Police are investigating who could be the person from the meeting in November who provided the machine to Prasad in February, Wani said.

"However we are still pursuing other aspects, other points in the case, which we cannot disclose at this stage", Wani added.

The magistrate released Prasad on bail on Saturday as none of the charges leveled against him including theft, trespass, and break-in figured in the police investigations of Prasad's role, said GVL Narasimha Rao, president of VeTA, a Citizens' Forum for promoting Verifiability, Transparency and Accountability in Indian Elections. Rao, who is an associate of Prasad, was present at the hearing before the magistrate.

The police were primarily interested in finding out from Prasad who had provided him the EVM, and the only charge that could possibly stick against him was illegal possession of government property, the magistrate is said to have noted.

India's Election Commission said in a copy of a letter posted on its web site earlier this month that it had previously offered to let Prasad demonstrate the vulnerabilities of EVMs. Prasad however said that a meeting in September last year was abruptly halted after he and his associates started pointing out the vulnerabilities. "There was all of a sudden panic all around," he added. Subramanian Swamy was also present at the meeting at the request of Prasad.

Election Commission officials have asked Prasad and associates not to destabilize the system, as their revelations could lead to politicians asking for previous elections to be held again, Prasad said.

Election Commission officials could not be reached for comment on Sunday. The commission said earlier this month that the demonstration of vulnerability by Prasad and group on the allegedly stolen EVM was not made under real election conditions, and hence could not be considered as a real demonstration that EVMs can be tampered with.

Prasad, who dropped out from electronic engineering school, said that a number of top researchers and technically competent people in India had called him to offer support and suggestions. But very few of them had come out publicly in his support for fear of antagonizing the government, he added.

For Prasad and his colleagues like Rao, the fight however continues. "We are not against EVMs, but we want that a verifiable paper trail should be also provided on EVMs," Prasad said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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