BBC shares old report about ‘EVM hacking’ a day after BJP sweeps elections

Have you suddenly discovered some people sharing a 2010 news story of BBC on Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in India being vulnerable to be “hacked”? Do you think they dug that story up from the BBC website thanks to their sharp memories? Not exactly. BBC helped them.

A day after BSP supremo Mayawati made rather ridiculous allegation that EVMs were hacked that helped BJP win big in Uttar Pradesh, BBC News recycled an old news article that claimed that EVMs could be “hacked”. They shared the article on their Facebook page at around 9 PM on Sunday, but deleted it a couple of hours later.

What was dishonest was that while sharing it on Facebook, the article – titled “US scientists ‘hack’ India electronic voting machines” and originally published in May 2010 – BBC News didn’t clarify that they were sharing an old article. In absence of which, it appeared as if Mayawati’s ridiculous claims were now validated by “US scientists”.

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The original article referred to an old controversy, which ironically was triggered after the BJP lost the 2009 general elections. Although senior BJP leaders didn’t officially support this ‘EVM hacking’ theory, there were concerns raised back then by various people after a techie named Hari K Prasad claimed that EVMs could be manipulated.

Hari Prasad had teamed up with a professor and couple of students of computer science at University of Michigan, who are referred to as “US scientists” in the BBC News headline. They had claimed that with some underhand hardware changes, the EVMs could be programmed to favour a particular candidate.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) had back then disputed the claims and issued a clarification (pdf link) reiterating that EVMs were safe. In fact, the Congress government had arrested Hari Prasad on charges of “stealing” an EVM – an act that was opposed by many including Telugu Desam Party President N Chandrababu Naidu.

ECI has since then maintained that enough precautions and security measures are taken to keep the EVMs safe from manipulation. Even going by the claims of Hari Prasad and his team, one needed to physically tamper the EVMs (to make minor hardware changes) to manipulate the results, which technically is not “hacking” as the term is typically used for software manipulation.

Even in their detailed response (pdf link) to the latest allegations by Mayawati, ECI has pointed out about the security measures and how every EVM has a seal signed by representatives of political parties. Therefore, any attempt to physically tamper the EVMs can be spotted by the representatives of such parties. The original complaint by the BSP (pdf link) doesn’t mention any proof of such tampering being observed by its representatives.

One expects that a ‘reputed’ media organisation like the BBC News would be aware of these facts and if at all it touches upon the story of EVM manipulation, they will highlight these aspects. However, like a cheap dishonest clickbait website, BBC News pushed out an old report, which can only help in pushing a propaganda currently being propagated by certain political parties.

This chicanery by BBC News was spotted by many of its readers, who bashed the news organisation on its Facebook page, after which BBC deleted the Facebook post. However, by then the article was shared over 2000 times, thus misleading thousands of people into potentially believing that Mayawati’s allegations were backed by some US scientists. Some are now sharing the old article of their own.

BBC’s intentions are suspect because while they deleted the old news from their Facebook page after users bashed them, an article on similar theme referring to the same 2010 incident was published on their Hindi website.

While ECI claims that the technology is foolproof and enough precautions are taken, to do away with concerns of manipulation, the Supreme Court of India had suggested having a paper trail along with the EVMs i.e. a voter will get a ‘receipt’ showing whom he had voted for, and the same receipt can then be submitted in a ballot box. In case of dispute over EVM numbers, the paper ballots can be counted. Such EVMs were tried, rather unsuccessfully, at a few places in the recently concluded Punjab assembly elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has encouraged this proposed system of having a paper trail along with the EVMs. Last year he had asked start-ups to come up with technologies that can help the Election Commission implement it successfully.

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