Telangana’s State Election Commission (TSEC) is considering using blockchain-based e-voting in the upcoming Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections. If green-lit, this would be first time e-voting (or remote voting) is conducted anywhere in the country. MediaNama has learnt that e-voters would be authenticated using Telangana’s Real Time Digital Authentication of Identity (RTDAI) system, which uses facial recognition technology (FRT) to perform “liveness checks” of persons.

TSEC has decided to use facial recognition in at least one polling station in all 150 wards in the GHMC area. The Commission had first used FRT at the Kompally urban local body elections in January. This was also the first time FRT was used in elections anywhere in the country.

While speaking to MediaNama, C Parthasarathy, State Election Commissioner, said that once the software and other mechanisms are finalised, TSEC will deliberate on using e-voting in low-voting and low-population wards in the GHMC (more on this later).

The GHMC elections are expected to happen in early 2021, since the term of the current elected body ends in February 2021. The Greater Hyderabad area had more than 70 lakh eligible voters in the previous elections held in 2016.

‘Using blockchain to ensure votes are tamper-proof’

The Telangana State Technology Services (TSTS), a specialised agency established by the state’s IT department, will be implementing both e-voting and FRT-based authentication. GT Venkateswara Rao, managing director of TSTS, told MediaNama that blockchain technology will be used to ensure that votes cast using e-voting are not tampered with before the counting exercise.

“There is usually a two or three-day period between when the votes are cast and when they are counted. If it were EVMs and ballot boxes, the votes are present at a physical location, and you can place security arrangement there. But here, votes are in a computer system. Hence, we have to find a solution that is 100% satisfactory to all stakeholders — voters as well as political parties. This is where we can use blockchain,” he said.

Rao said that the IT department is working with researchers from IIT Bombay and IIT Hyderabad to create a block-chain based system. He noted that such a system has never been used anywhere in the country, and that very few examples exist globally as well. Rao, however, didn’t say if the system was close to completion.

‘Authenticating e-voters not a challenge, will be done using FRT’

Rao said that another key aspect of e-voting is how voters are authenticated on voting day. “In a physical system, the voter comes to the booth, where an official checks their identity. But how do you verify the identity of a voter who is voting from home? Here is where facial recognition comes in, and we already have the tool to implement it,” he said.

How it will work: TSTS will use Telangana’s FRT-based Real Time Digital Authentication of Identity (RTDAI) system to authenticate e-voters. Voters registered for e-voting will have to click a photo of themselves on their phones (or any other device) and upload it to the e-voting application. The RTDAI-enabled system will perform a “liveness check” — that is, if the face being shown to the camera is that of a real person, or just another picture. This, Rao said, will solve the problem of bogus voting through impersonation.

The Telangana government uses RTDAI extensively for a variety of purposes, including the disbursement of pensions to the elderly, degree admissions and road transport authority services. The authentication mechanism works on a database of facial photographs soured from the databases of various state government departments. New facial photographs entered during each transaction are added to the database. In theory, this new data is used to improve accuracy using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Remote voting in response to pandemic, says election commissioner

State Election Commissioner Parthasarathy, who took charge of the TSEC earlier this month, told MediaNama that senior citizens and person with disabilities are at elevated risk of contracting Covid-19, hence are prime candidates for e-voting. “We want them to able to vote from home […] The voting mechanism would be simple enough for even the elderly to use without any prior training. We will publicise the necessary information through all forms of media,” he said.

Polling personnel working on organising the elections will also be provided the option. “In any case, we are supposed to give them postal ballots. Instead of that, we can allow them to vote remotely using e-voting,” he said.

Possible expansion to low-voting wards: TSEC would also look at expanding e-voting to wards where polling percentages have traditionally been low, said Parthasarathy. “We will study data of polling percentages from the past, to see where there is low participation. This could be areas with concentrations of IT employees or the affluent, who might be less likely to come out of their homes on voting day. These are just examples, we have to study the data closely.” However, this expansion will be possible only if the e-voting software is ready in time, he added.

FRT in at least one polling station in each of the 150 wards

TSEC has asked GHMC to identify one polling station in each of the 150 wards in the city, where FRT will be used to authenticate voters. This is in line with the TSEC’s plans, which it had revealed in January this year, when it had used FRT at 10 polling stations in Kompally municipality. The Commission had then said that Kompally was a testing ground, and learnings acquired there would be put to use in the GHMC elections.

The TSEC had then revealed a not-so-impressive accuracy rate of 78% at Kompally. When asked if the accuracy had been improved since then, Parathasarathy said, “In Kompally, the exercise had been done in a hurry. [The IT department and TSTS] did not have the time to prepare. Now that we have more time, I expect the accuracy to be at least 95%.”

Jayesh Ranjan, the state’s IT secretary had earlier told MediaNama that the most of the failed authentications at Kompally were because of issues with dark backgrounds, made it difficult for the software to distinguish faces in the foreground. Venkteswara Rao said TSTS would work with TSEC to sort out issues related to lighting and backgrounds before the elections.

TSEC to set up its own servers

TSEC will set up its own servers to ensure it has control over voter data. The Centre for Good Governance (CGG) — TSEC’s official technology partner — has developed tools for electoral roll management, election process management and randomisation of polling personnel. “We are going to set up servers where data used by these tools will be stored. This is to ensure TSEC has control over voter data,” he said.

With regard to facial recognition and e-voting data, however, the data will remain in the domain of TSTS. However, Parthasarathy said TSEC has mechanisms in place wherein TSTS would be required to delete all voter data post the elections.

Privacy concerns in blockchain-based voting systems, and Telangana’s use of FRT

Last month, the Election Commission of India had held a series of webinars to explore the use of blockchain for remote voting. Several lawyers and academics had noted that voter privacy was just an important as the voting process itself. Nappinai NS, an Advocate at the Supreme Court, and founder of Cyber Saathi, had wondered if tech was even needed in elections, where paper trails are considered essential. Nappinai had also termed Telangana’s use of facial recognition at Kompally as “intrusive”.

In one of the webinars, Telangana’s IT secretary Jayesh Ranjan had suggested the use of FRT to authenticate voters. He also suggested the device on which voting is done could be “pre-registered”, for instance, by tagging the phone number and IMEI to voter-ID.

Despite the criticism, Telangana is undeterred. The state has deployed FRT in two new areas since the pandemic began: degree admissions and RTA services. The tech could be soon be deployed in the distribution of ration as well.

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