It was billed as a live demonstration of how India’s Electronic Voting Machines could be hacked. But a day after the event in London on Monday at which a masked man claiming to be a cyber expert alleged that EVMs could be manipulated, the organisers of the event distanced themselves from it.
“The speaker at yesterday’s event did not follow up his claims with any proof,” said Deborah Bonetti of the Foreign Press Association, which organised the event along with the Indian Journalists’ Association. “He was not credible and should not have been given a platform.”
The masked man, who attended the meeting via video conference, identified himself as Syed Shuja and claimed that he was a cyber expert from the US. He alleged that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections had been rigged and that Bharatiya Janata Party leader Gopinath Munde and journalist Gauri Lankesh had been murdered to cover up the alleged manipulation of the machines.
He claimed to have worked for the Electronics Corporation of India Limited from 2009 to 2014. He said that he and his team realised in April 2014 that “signals were being emitted” from the machines used in the Lok Sabha elections. He alleged that the BJP, which won that election, hacked the machines using a modulator which transmits military-grade frequency.
On Tuesday, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed that the Congress had organised the event, questioning the presence of party leader Kapil Sibal at the event. To buttress his claim that the Opposition party had organised the event, Prasad read out pro-Congress statements made by author Ashis Ray, who moderated the event, on social media, as well as editorials in the National Herald that Ray had written.
Sibal responded at a press conference to say that he had attended in a personal capacity.
Shuja’s claims were also denied by the Election Commission of India, which reiterated that electronic voting machines cannot be tampered with. It also ordered the Delhi Police to file a First Information Report against Shuja.
Scroll.in attempted to verify some of Shuja’s claims.
Claim: An employee of ECIL
Shuja claimed that he worked in the “radio frequency equipment” department of the Electronics Corporation of India Limited between 2009 and 2014.
On Tuesday, the Electronics Corporation of India Limited issued a statement denying this. “Mr Syed Shuja has neither been in the rolls of the ECIL as a regular employee nor was he in any way associated in the design and development of EVMs in ECIL produced between 2009 and 2014,” it said.
Vinod Kumar, who works in the administrative department of the Electronic Corporation of India Limited’s electronic manufacturing services division, told Scroll.in that the company’s employee database did not have any details of anyone named Syed Shuja. “We do not even know if this is his actual name and we cannot find anyone with that name who previously worked in the organisation,” said Kumar. “If we get more details then we can enquire.”
Claim: EVMs were rigged during 2014 elections, and in Delhi in 2015
Shuja claimed that the 2014 General Elections in India were rigged and cited specific technical aspects by which the voting machines were allegedly manipulated. However, experts who spoke to Scroll.in refuted Shuja’s claims, describing them a “technically flawed”.
Kiran Chandra of Hyderabad-based Free Software Movement said that Shuja’s claims that the voting machines were manipulated with the help of low-frequency signals did not add up. “When you transmit a wave and when you tune in, it will show the same frequency just like when you tune in to a particular frequency on radio,” said Chandra. “This is basic signal engineering. Similarly, if you transmit a wave, then the same frequency will show up on all voting machines across without any variation.”
Rajat Moona, a director with the Indian Institute of Technology who has served as a technical expert for the Election Commission of India since 2010, was also sceptical of Shuja’s claims. “This sounds artificial and fishy,” he said. “We would like to know how voting machines can be hacked and if there is a design shortcoming then we would like to plug a hole in it but so far no one has come forward.”
Shuja had also claimed that he and his team had intercepted signals being sent in favour of the BJP during the Delhi Assembly elections in 2015 and flipped them in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Chandra said this was not possible. “There is a difference between intercepting and interference,” he said. “When a radio signal is stopped by another wave in the same frequency then it creates a noise. The signal is jammed and nothing can pass through. This is school level physics.”
Moona said that the cables used by the ballot unit and control unit of an Electronic Voting Machine to communicate with each other are manufactured by the Electronics Corporation of India Limited, and go through an electrical test. “These cables communicate at levels only between five to 10 volts,” he said. “If there is any device or micro processing unit inserted in it then it will blow away. Such a device inserted will not even be able to communicate in the cable.”
Claim: Riots to ‘cover up’ murder of Shuja’s team
During the press conference, Shuja claimed that about 11 people from his team were shot by a BJP leader in Hyderabad after they questioned him about the alleged tampering of voting machines. Shuja alleged that communal clashes were orchestrated in Kishan Bagh, Hyderabad, in May 2014, to “cover up” the deaths of his team mates.
Though he did not identify the leader, on Tuesday, Telangana BJP leader G Kishan Reddy refuted the allegations and said if he knew how to hack EVMs he would have been chief minister by now. He also denied killing anyone. “Is Congress [which was still in power at the Centre at the time] so incompetent that I killed 11 people and no one got to know?” he asked.
Reddy asked how the Congress won the Assembly elections in three states in November and December if the EVMs had been tampered with by the BJP.
The Hyderabad police on Tuesday also refuted Shuja’s claims, according to The Hindu. It said there were clashes in Kishan Bagh in Hyderabad in May 2014 after which para-military forces had been brought in. “As the situation was going out of control, police opened fire resulting in the death of three persons,” a Hyderabad police officer told The Hindu. “Nothing beyond this was found during the subsequent investigation.”
According to news reports published in May 2014, three persons were killed in police firing over the alleged burning of a religious flag in Kishan Bagh. The Times of India reported on May 15, 2014, that clashes took place between Muslim and Sikh groups which left 13 injured. Another report in The Hindu Businessline on May 14, 2014, stated that the clashes left 17 persons including 10 police officials injured. The report also added that after the alleged burning of the flag, the police opened fire after the two groups clashed, which left three persons dead.
Claim: The US government has granted Shuja political asylum
Shuja claimed in his press conference that he sought political asylum in the US after he was attacked and his associates killed in Hyderabad.
During his press conference, Sibal too said Shuja had been granted political asylum by the US government on the basis of certain documents, which the Congress leader claimed to have seen. Sibal said that the US Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security had verified Shuja’s claims after which he was given political asylum by the US government.
Scroll.in was not able to independently verify this.
Claim: ‘Military-grade frequency modulators cleared by Sibal’
During the meeting, a journalist asked Shuja if there was “any agenda” being pursued since Sibal was the only politician to attend the event. Shuja denied any association with Sibal but said that he had once contacted the politician when he needed help.
Shuja later added that Sibal was “indirectly responsible” for the rigging in the 2014 elections. He claimed that Sibal, as Union Minister of Communications and Information Technology in the previous Congress-led United Progress Alliance government, had cleared the purchase of “military-grade frequency modulators”.
Sibal told Scroll.in that this purchase was approved under his tenure. “These frequency modulators were first approved by the defence ministry and then it ccame to us,” he said. “We had nothing to do with it. We had to say yes.”
But experts point out that this is irrelevant to the discussion as no wireless communication is possible with Electronic Voting Machines. “The ballot unit and control unit only communicate through cables,” said Moona. “The cyber expert said that there are AM and FM frequency type communications but you need an antenna for that and the voting machines do not have an antenna on them.”