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.

  • Lets look at logic

    LOL, Pakistan should worry about holding the elections in 2018, let alone quarrel over voting machine contracts.

    By the looks of it, the Pindi boys at the GHQ have different plans. Every new election weakens them a little, therefore it is in their interest to make sure that this country never gets used to democracy.

    They take democracy and civilian rule as an act of war against them. There has been a Zarb-e-Azb going on against the Pakistani civilians since 1948.Recommend

  • Ahmad Shah Durrani

    The politicians wants to get kickbacks by ordering voting machines from overseas. These politicians have their homes filled with imported stuff and while steal always from Pakistan.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    By chance would a “local vendor” be influenced by politicians to program voting machines so that voting results can be “rigged”??? Where have I heard that term before???Recommend

  • Jayman

    The photo shows the voting machine used in India. I guess we know who the “foreign supplier” is.Recommend

  • wb

    How will you build an EVM? You can’t even manufacture safety pins. All your Burraqs, Ghauris, Ghaznavis are imports from China.Recommend

  • Indu India

    In USA the EVMs have become obsolete or not usable in 40 states.Iam surprised how Pakistan is thinking of accepting bid from American company. I am from India. Pakistan should encourage its own companies for making EVM’s than a foreign country. Bharat Electronics has made EvM’s for India. If Pakistani Companies need technical advice they can take help from Bharat Electronics.I wish India and Pakistan have collaborations,trade and mutual support. Instead of having hatred towards each other it is time to move on for betterment of Pakistani People.Recommend

  • Indu India

    Pakistan needs to encourage its own people first. It needs to provide necessary skills and opportunities to its people. It should work towards providing secure environment to its people and country. If it opens trade with India ..Iam sure Indian companies will invest Billions of Dollars.Pakistan should dream Big. Kashmir issue has taken Pakistan very backward. It is time to keep Kashmir aside and think about people and development of Pakistan.It needs to moderanise madrassas and keep evil people at bay. If Pakistan does this then Iam sure all countries in this world would love to invest in Pakistan.Recommend

  • kickass

    You must be a Hindu Indian. Scared of what to give your name or pseudonym? Typical mentality.Recommend

  • LS

    No that is just a photo “Borrowed” from internet…Recommend

  • quatro

    USA was the first country to utilize electronic voting machines – they are now old and the municipalities responsible for acquiring them are facing budget issues and don’t have the funds to buy new machines. Moving back to paper ballots saves them money. Your implied criticism of American voting machines is unwarranted.Recommend

  • gp65

    The important issue is not whether the voting machines are made by a foreigner or a Pakistani. The important thing is that the specifications should be the right specifications. The specs should not be over-engineered to increase cost or rule out otherwise acceptable vendors on the other hand, they should not be over simplified simply to allow local vendors some access.
    The concern you have about a foreign government influencing Pakistani elections through a backdoor route if you use foreign EVM, also applies to a backdoor route being used by ruling party (placing order for EVMs) installing in the machines.
    It would have helped if the author had specified what exactly were the specifications that favoured foreign vendors. That way one could judge whether the specifications have been influenced by a bribe paid by a foreign vendor or are geared to ensuring accuracy and preventing dhaandhli.Recommend

  • Rehman

    Why we spit over cry milk…..we should debate if in case of EVM or BVM did our govt or ECP give time to local institutions or reserve funds for R&D? If not then how it comes locally……….Or will ECP is planning for technology transfer for future election? Answer is NO why it is simple and every one knows?
    Million Dollar Question is are our politicians ready to accept it or it is just to release pressure of PTI? Is PTI really wants use of EVM or just a propaganda?
    Is ECP is serious to do that as the price of tender is very cheap while such type of tenders sell on big cost so that serious contenders will participate in such big national issues.Recommend

  • Jorge Kahwagi

    interesting blog
    Jorge Kahwagi MacariRecommend