EVM Hacking Presser: Theatre of the Absurd

The much hyped and awaited EVM (Electronic Voting Machine) hacking press conference in London by a ‘cyber expert’ on Monday, which was supposed to turn Indian democracy upside down, didn’t quite achieve that, though it definitely had the audience rolling on the floor laughing. Well, not the journalists and Congress leader Kapil Sibal, who were present at the venue, some of whom might have been ignorant enough to take it seriously. After all, technology and science have been difficult enough even for the prime minister, what with his knowledge of genetics, cosmetic surgery and transplanting an elephant’s head on a human body. But some of us techies sitting in our homes or offices weren’t quite sure if we were witnessing a spoof EVM drama or monumental stupidity.

This was supposed to be a serious affair to expose the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) allegedly sordid and incredibly secret but efficient EVM hacking operations that had the party winning most elections – from the 2014 general elections to the 2017 UP assembly elections. Sibal attended the press conference in London; Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha was supposed to live tweet, and The Quint was live-streaming from the venue, while even NDTV was covering it. A supposedly US-based cyber expert on EVMs, who claimed to have worked on the design of the machines, was going to not just expose BJP’s “wrongdoings”, but also do a live demonstration of hacking a genuine EVM right in front of the press.

And yet, as soon as the press conference started, you knew that something was terribly wrong. There were no EVMs. The US ‘expert’ wasn’t there in person. Instead, you had a person on videoconference, whose eyes and most of the face were covered, as he spoke to the camera from a dark room. It had all the makings of a cheap B-grade Bollywood movie. From there on, it quickly turned surreal.

The B-grade Bollywood movie plot quickly turned into an AIB (All Indian Bakchod) spoof, as our protagonist talked about how he and his team, in 2014, demonstrated how EVMs can be hacked, at the request of late BJP leader Gopinath Munde. Only to have them called to a room in Hyderabad, where the entire team of 12 people was shot, killing everyone except for him. The bullet went through his chest, missing his reversed heart. He was left for dead, but we woke up, and ran for his life. That this Rajnikantesque escape didn’t have the journalists in the room rolling on the floor laughing was quite a feat on their part.

Our Rajnikant-Bond then went on to throw around technical mumbo jumbo about how low-frequency signals (he even specified the range 7 to 390Hz) were used to hack the EVMs. You could excuse the journalists for not catching on to the absurdity of this. As, after all, even most of our famed Indian techies are unfortunately completely in the dark about the basics of signal processing, physics or, for that matter, anything to do with engineering.

What was perhaps more stunning than this surreal performance was the credibility given to it by the Congress, sections of the media, and the liberal anti-EVM crowd on social media. One would be tempted to think that this all-round incredible stupidity would be the result of the four years of dumbing down that the Narendra Modi government has subjected us to with lectures on the medicinal, cancer-curing properties of cow dung and urine, or the fantastic flying cars during the Vedic times discussed in Indian Science Congress. But that would be wrong. Such monumental stupidity can’t be produced in four years. It behoves us to look deeper, and figure out why our discourse has sunk to this level of abysmal stupidity and complete absence of scientific temper.

Bappa Sinha is the founder and chief technology officer of VirtunetSystems. Views are personal.