The 2019 parliamentary elections, aptly dubbed âDesh ka Mahatwohar,â saw the live-time results broadcast directly from the Election Commission of India website and mobile app for the first time. The CIS results website had over 800 million visits and a deluge of traffic in the mobile app. Although most of the discussion centered around EVM, the CIS online results dissemination system was silently making its mark.
This feat of disseminating results in real time on such a large scale has fascinated international electoral management bodies. The success of live streaming online of election results trends in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, set the benchmark for counting and dissemination for the rest of the world to follow.
Real-time nature was so evident this time around, that even before many neighborhoods within ICE could see the trends, it was present in everyone’s mobile app. Compare it with the American elections. The battle of George W Bush and Al Gore for the White House lasted 36 days and we know how long we have waited for the American results to be finalized in 2020. It has been the resilience of the ICT system of the ECI and the backbone of the National Computer Center of India that made it possible. Traditionally, results were reported manually by the returning officer from the counting centers and then sent to the CIS for compilation at the state and national levels. This arduous process, while fully proven, took a long time to release and would spark speculation somewhere or the other. But the ECI’s new ICT system ensured that between returning officers and citizens, there was no one in between.
The success of this innovative transformation of ICT poses new challenges from the point of view of the expectations of citizens and media houses and cyberthreats for the counting system for the next legislative elections in 2024.
Voters have tasted this new technology and now see it as their primary source of information. All subsequent state assembly elections using this platform have also attracted more viewers than ever before. What was once an option is now the only option.
Second, voters are now hungry for data. More and more information is requested through analytical results reports. ECI has all the results information from 1952 and could easily put it together to get a much richer and more meaningful, authentic display of results. By presenting the judicious results of each candidate, party share, comparative results of previous elections, voting margin, position by party, the deep links between candidate profile and affidavits and many in-depth reports of this type , the ICE can now use the next level system. The use of geographic information systems to display trends and results is another added value through which an ordinary man can meaningfully engage in democracy.
If media houses, including social media, have direct access through the use of secure APIs, then the result data can be transmitted directly to all media house servers. This will contribute to a faster dissemination of results, but even more to a much broader view of real and authentic results data. Even press agents hired through various channels will not have to be delegated to counting centers.
But all these advances, for it to become a super success, will have to be carefully orchestrated and jealously guarded against bad players.
Errors and omissions are an integral part of any digital transaction. However, the stupid handwriting error of data entry by a returning officer is immediately attributed to the failure of the Global ICT system and not to a one-time data entry error. This is compounded by the fact that generally the majority of returning officers are new to every Lok Sabha election. Therefore, effective education of returning officers will be a prerequisite to ensure correct data entry in the first place. âGet it right the first time, with no error policies being adopted from the start.
Second, the serious threat of cybersecurity. No election can ever afford to compromise on its ICT infrastructure. In a close election that takes place over a fixed period of time, taking a website offline or slowing down access for even a few hours could hamper all good efforts, may lead to counting delays in some centers and / or slow down the communication of results. .
Andy Greenberg in his book ‘Sandworm’ described the hacking efforts of the Kremlin, a pro-Russian hacker group known as CyberBerkut that attacked Ukraine’s Central Election Commission in 2014, just before its presidential election and planted false results on his website showing the far-right candidate won.
Based on the current attacks, there may be three types of cyber attacks considered on the counting system, namely subversion, disruption and defamation. These respectively cover attempts to outright alter the outcome of vote totals, limit or hinder the ability of returning officers to record data, and undermine voter confidence in the legitimacy of the election by spreading rumors and fake websites / social media accounts.
To increase cybersecurity, the electoral infrastructure must be increased in all counting centers by providing secure network terminals and protocols, and each peripheral computer system must be hygienically cleaned of viruses and malware. Clear responsibilities should be put in place involving the district officers of the National Informatics Center (DIO), state IT departments, and election IT officials.
With respect to the broader cross-border threats of cyberattacks, especially sponsored cyberterrorism, careful coordination mechanisms of various agencies need to be established, in particular with the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Center (NCIIPC), the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN), NIC CERT, and major law enforcement agencies.
A fake website showing trends and results at a crucial time could undermine the democratic process. Therefore, all official applications facing citizens and voters should be clearly identified and the majority of them should be unified into one integrated application. Many state returning officers and district returning officers are creating their own apps and portals for voter facilitation. All of this needs to be streamlined and tightly controlled. The ICE should limit the proliferation of state polling office portals and apps during parliamentary elections.
Subsequently, a strong mechanism must be put in place to educate voters at the local level using the flagship program âSystematic Voter Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP)â. Voters and more so the media must be made aware of the single source of information. The official website and the official mobile app that will display the results should be disseminated among the media and voters. A team of state IT officials under the IT secretary should be formed as a nodal officer to monitor the germination of any bogus domains and apps spreading misinformation and erroneous results. They should be ordered to eliminate all bad players in the short term.
The legislative elections of 2024 require advance planning to make the ICT system resilient with a minimum of blind spots. The electoral computer system should become the backbone of elections and ensure that even before a conspiracy theory is prepared by bad players, the truth is revealed through ECI’s secure ICT systems.
The author is the former Director of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Information Security Officer (CISO) of the Election Commission of India.