'U' prof. nearly deported from India for research on electronic voting

BY KAITLIN WILLIAMS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 17, 2011

Alex Halderman, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, was walking down a street in India when he saw a newspaper headline that said he had been deported from the country.

The Indian Express reported that Halderman had been deported on Dec. 12 for attempting to present his research on problems with India’s electronic voting system. However, Halderman and his Dutch research colleague Rop Gonggrijp narrowly avoided deportation by arranging to stay in India for tourism purposes only and not to present their research.

Halderman, who teaches electrical engineering and computer science at the University, worked with seven colleagues on a study titled, “Security Analysis of India’s Electronic Voting Machines.” The Indian Election Commission and other government organizations in support of the research helped keep Halderman and Gonggrijp from being deported from the country.

Halderman said he was in India to present solutions to problems in electronic voting machines, or EVMs, at a conference on computer security issues.

One of Halderman’s colleagues, Indian citizen Hari Prasad, was arrested and detained by Indian police in August for trying to present the research. Halderman said he believes some Indian officials may have been upset about his research, which may be why Prasad was arrested and why Halderman was almost deported.

“The research showed significant vulnerabilities in India’s voting machines which, up to that point, Indian authorities had been claiming were ‘perfect’ and ‘tamper-proof,’” Halderman said.

Technology Review, a publication from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported that Indian EVMs are the most widely used voting system in the world, with more than 400 million Indian voters using the machines alone.

Halderman said his research could be disliked by public officials because it reveals holes in the Indian voting system that would undermine the legitimacy of their political victories. Therefore, his EVM study could be interpreted as a means of questioning whether the offices had been acquired through ill means, he said.

“If you were elected fairly, of course finding out that the system was insecure might cast doubt on your legitimacy. If you were elected by cheating, then obviously you don’t want the system to be improved,” Halderman said. “Now, our studies to date have not even tried to demonstrate that previous elections were stolen.”

Published in April, the study found that India’s EVMs are “vulnerable to serious attacks.” It says that the systems “do not provide transparency,” so results from the machines can’t be confirmed to have been cast honestly.

Halderman said he hoped to shed light on these issues while in India. However, when he landed in India on Dec. 12, Indian officials told Halderman to return to the United States on the plane he had arrived in.

“Luckily, I have a lot of experience missing planes,” Halderman said. “So I did everything I could to try to miss that one.”

Since Halderman could no longer present his research, he spent his time with friends and visited landmarks like the Taj Mahal. Though he is now safely at home, Halderman said his colleagues in India are still in a tense and dangerous situation because of their research.

Even so, Halderman said he plans to return to India and continue research on the country’s EVMs.

“I’m very eager to go to India again,” Halderman said. “We’ll see what happens.”

He said he plans to continue his work on India’s voting systems because most of the research in the past has been on systems in wealthier nations, even though most of the world’s democracies are in poorer countries.

“We have a lot to learn about how to make voting systems that are secure and suitable for the needs of countries outside of the U.S. and Europe,” Halderman said.

Halderman and his doctorate students made headlines in October for hacking the pilot site of an Internet voting system in Washington, D.C., which would have allowed overseas voters to cast ballots in the United States's November election, according to an Oct. 7, 2010 Michigan Daily article. Halderman and his students programmed the system to play “Hail to the Victors” after each vote was cast – ultimately causing administrators to shut down the online voting system.