Why is Pakistan asking a foreign supplier to build our electronic voting machines?

Published: June 17, 2016
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The evaluation criteria for bidders in the ECP tender documents are skewed to favour foreign companies. It is almost impossible for Pakistani companies to qualify. This is a dangerous mistake. The nature and complexity of the electronic chips that are the heart of such machines allow the manufacturer to build into them so called ‘backdoors’. PHOTO: GINGER NEWS

Elections in Pakistan are going electronic. No announcement has been made yet but two tenders released last month by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) suggest that this is the way the country is going.

In one tender the ECP would ask vendors to bid for 300 biometric verification machines (BVM). These will be tried out during the by-elections. If successful, the winning bidder will get an order for 300,000 machines for use in the general elections. The second tender is for 400 electronic voting machines (EVM) followed, in the event of a successful trial, by 300,000 machines for the general election. Both a BVM and an EVM are needed in each polling booth. The BVM will verify the identity of the voter and the EVM will register his or her vote.

Elections in Pakistan are almost always marred by accusations of vote rigging. So the move toward an electronic voting system is very welcome. It will go a long way toward addressing the persistent demand by political parties to ensure clean, transparent, easily verifiable elections. But there are pitfalls. And if adequate measures are not taken to guard against them we may end up in worse shape than we are in now.

The evaluation criteria for bidders in the ECP tender documents are skewed to favour foreign companies. It is almost impossible for Pakistani companies to qualify. This is a dangerous mistake. The nature and complexity of the electronic chips that are the heart of such machines allow the manufacturer to build into them so called ‘backdoors’.

This is virtually undetectable circuitry that allows an external party to access the machine remotely via, for example, a mobile phone. Chips can contain up to two billion transistors. It is not difficult to put in a few that provide a ‘backdoor’ for an intruder. Given the sheer number of transistors in the chip, finding the few that operate secretly makes finding a needle in the proverbial haystack akin to a walk in the park.

The danger then is that a foreign supplier can build in mechanisms that would allow outsiders to control EVM’s and hence influence the outcome of an election. The only sure way to ensure the machines are built right is to have them built in Pakistan by local companies under close supervision of the authorities. Both machines, the BVM and the EVM, can be made locally. In fact prototypes of both have been built and demonstrated by researchers at a university in Islamabad. Their intention is to license the technology to the many local firms now involved in manufacturing electronic devices.

There is also an opportunity here. The cost of purchasing a total of 600,000 machines could reach up to one billion US dollars. If the machines were built locally this money would be spent inside the country giving our fledgling companies valuable experience. The whole electronics ecosystem in the country would benefit, young engineers and technicians would be trained and employed, and manufacturing companies could embellish their resumes enabling them to bid for business abroad.

There is a need to be wary as well. When this kind of money is at stake, foreign companies have been known to resort to methods that take advantage of the relative poverty of those who sit on the other side of the table. The top government officer at the ECP has an annual income of the order of $35000. A ‘commission payment’ of a per cent or two of one billion dollars is a nest egg that few, in corruption ridden Pakistan, could resist.

The mere fact that the tender documents are biased in favour of foreign companies suggests that some of these tactics may already be at work. Why else would the ECP seek to hamstring Pakistani companies? There are also reports that a US based company bidding for the business has already taken people involved in the process on an expenses paid foreign junket under the ruse of a ‘field trip’ to see their machines in operation.

It is incumbent, not just on the ECP, but the whole nation to come together and reject absolutely foreign involvement in the manufacture and supply of these machines. The possibility that a foreign entity can influence our elections is a risk that we simply cannot take.

This article originally appeared here.

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Nadeem M Qureshi

Nadeem M Qureshi

Chairman and founder of the political party Mustaqbil Pakistan, Nadeem has a business background and has studied engineering at M.I.T. in Cambridge Mass. and business. He also went to Harvard Business School in Boston. He tweets @NadeemMQureshi (twitter.com/NadeemMQureshi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.