December 16, 2010 | By Jim Tyre

Indian Government Detains E-Voting Researchers

This year, EFF was proud to present one of its Pioneer Awards to Hari Prasad, an Indian security researcher who, along with his colleagues Alex Halderman and Rop Gonggrijp exposed serious flaws in the electronic voting machines used in India. The Indian government rewarded his hard work by arresting Prasad for alleged theft of the electronic voting machines which he had studied —the criminal charges made against him are still pending. Prasad came to the U.S. to accept the Pioneer Award from EFF a few months ago, then returned voluntarily to India.

Prasad, Halderman, and Gonggrijp decided to reunite to make a presentation earlier this week on EVM (electronic voting machine) security at ICISS 2010 in Gandhinagar, India. Halderman and Gonggrijp flew into Delhi on Monday, taking separate flights. Both men were detained at the Delhi airport; Gonggrijp for about 12 hours, and Halderman, who had arrived earlier, for about 16. The headline of one of the earliest news stories suggested, incorrectly, that Halderman had been deported without ever getting out of the airport.

Exactly why Halderman and Gonggrijp were detained remains unclear. Some reports suggest that it was a simple visa issue —the tourist visas the researchers had may have been insufficient for presenting at a conference. However, The Economic Times of India suggests a more sinister reason —that Indian officials did not want the two to return to India at all:

GVV Sarma, joint secretary (foreigners) at the ministry of home affairs, said the duo was initially denied entry because of violations of visa terms they had committed on an earlier occasion. “They had come earlier on a tourist visa, but were involved in activities that could not be considered tourism,” Sarma said.

The home ministry had asked the respective missions in their countries to not issue them visas in the future, but they were issued visas again inadvertently. “Since they were issued visas, we later decided to let them in,” Sarma said.

Eventually, Halderman and Gonggrijp were released from detention and were allowed into the country on the condition that they do not attend the conference, let alone present at it. That they were released at all perhaps was fortunate. Prasad and GVL Narasimha Rao worked tirelessly to secure their release, enlisting the help of many others, including Harvard Professor and politician Dr. Subramanian Swamy, and even convincing the Election Commission of India to inform the Home Ministry that it did not oppose their entry.

In the meantime, the Indian government’s case against Prasad continues. Since well before he came to the U.S., the prosecutors have had a motion to revoke his bail—the terms of his bail did not prevent him from making the trip. Each time the motion was supposed to be heard, the prosecutors continued it for a month or so. Most recently, the motion was set to be heard this past Monday, 14 December. Instead of continuing it for another month (or just dropping it, in the light of the fact that Prasad returned to India voluntarily after his U.S. trip), it was continued to Wednesday, 16 December, the day of the ICISS 2010 presentation. The prosecutors' gambit effectively prevented Prasad from making the presentation.

That gambit may have backfired:

The sessions Court on Wednesday came down heavily on the city police over the investigation of the electronic voting machine (EVM) theft case.

“An investigation is necessary in the case, but my anxiety is whether the investigation is in the right direction,” Sessions Judge ML Tahaliyani said while hearing the police’s application seeking cancellation of Hyderabad-based researcher Hari Prasad’s bail.

“The police haven’t ascertained to date who stole the EVM from the collector’s office. They are concentrating only on the custody issue, either deliberately or out of ignorance. The case is much larger that just seeking cancellation of the bail of the person,” the court observed.

[....]

“The police are only concentrating on Prasad’s custody. None of the court’s queries have been answered satisfactorily,” Judge Tahaliyani said

Acccording to the article, the Court will issue its decision on December 21st.

India is the largest democracy in the world, and its use of EVMs is pervasive. That the Home Ministry and the prosecutors would act in such an underhanded way to prevent further education about the flaws in Indian EVMs is worthy of condemnation. EFF will continue to draw attention to this important issue as Hari and his colleagues work to preserve transparency and democracy in India.


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