An Indian computer scientist was arrested this weekend when he refused to disclose an anonymous source who provided an electronic voting machine to a team of security researchers.
Hari Prasad is the managing director of Netindia Ltd., an Indian research and development firm. He and other researchers have long questioned the security of India's paperless electronic voting machines. Despite repeated reports of election irregularities and concerns about fraud, the Election Commission of India insists that the machines are tamper-proof.
In 2009, the commission publicly challenged Prasad to show that India's voting machines could be compromised, but refused to give him access to the machines to perform a review. Earlier this year, an anonymous source provided an Indian voting machine to a research team led by Prasad, Alex Halderman, and Rop Gonggrijp. The team exposed security flaws that could allow an attacker to change election results and compromise ballot secrecy. They published a paper detailing their findings, which you can read here.
According to Halderman, Prasad was questioned Saturday morning at his home in Hyderabad by authorities who wanted to know the identity of the source who gave the voting machine to the research team. Prasad was ultimately arrested and taken to Mumbai, though reportedly hadn't been charged with a crime.
This turn of events is deeply troubling. Prasad is a respected researcher who helped to discover a critical flaw in India's voting system. He and his fellow researchers would never have been able to document the weaknesses in India's voting machines without the help of their anonymous source. This is precisely why anonymity is important: it allows people to make important contributions to the public dialogue without fear of retribution.
The Election Commission of India should have given researchers access to the voting machines in the first place. Rather than attempting to persecute Prasad and the anonymous source, the government should be focusing its attention and resources on the real problem: electronic voting machines with no mechanism for accountability.
UPDATE: According to the Times of India and Reuters, Prasad has been charged in connection with the alleged theft of the voting machine studied by the research team. He has been remanded to police custody until Thursday, August 26.