It’s official. Senior citizens, polling officials, COVID-19 patients and those under quarantined will be able to vote remotely using “e-voting” in the upcoming Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections. However, MediaNama has learnt, instead of going with the initial plan of using facial recognition technology (FRT) to authenticate voters, the voting system will use Aadhaar-enabled OTP to facilitate voting from mobile devices. FRT data, will however, still be collected to improve the detection algorithm.

The Telangana State Election Commission (TSEC) seems to have great hopes for the system. It has decided that — pending its success in the GHMC elections — e-voting will be expanded to the Warangal and Khammam corporation elections that are expected to happen in 2021.

This is the first time that e-voting will be used in any election — local, state or Parliamentary — in the country. Telangana was also the first state to use FRT in local elections.

State Election Commissioner C Parthasarathi convened a high-level meeting with officials from the state IT department on Monday, according to a government release. The e-voting system is being developed by the IT department and supported by the state-founded Centre for Good Governance (CGG), both of which were represented in the meeting. The officials discussed about how voters will register themselves for e-voting, and how to protect voter secrecy. Parthasarathi reportedly directed the IT department and CGG to develop and hand over the e-voting software.

Speaking to MediaNama, state IT secretary Jayesh Ranjan, who was at the meeting, said that the software is currently under development, and will be ready in time before the GHMC elections. Although a schedule is yet to be prepared, the elections are expected sometime in December 2020 or January 2021.

FRT not to be used for authentication of voters

The Telangana State Technology Services (TSTS), a specialised agency established by the IT department, is currently developing the blockchain-based e-voting system. GT Venkateswara Rao, managing director of TSTS, had earlier told MediaNama that voters would be authenticated using Telangana’s FRT-based Real Time Digital Authentication of Identity (RTDAI) system. Voters would have to pass a “liveness check” — that is, if the face being shown to the camera is that of a real person, or just another picture.

However, the SEC has chosen to go in a different direction now. Ranjan told MediaNama that the SEC has recommended that FRT be used only as a “subsidiary method” for authentication. “The main method will be Aadhaar-based authentication,” he said.

Voters will be authenticated using one-time password (OTP) sent  to their Aadhaar-linked mobile number on a preregistered device. Those who are yet to link their Aadhaar with a mobile number will not be able to avail the e-voting system. 

At the same time, the e-voting system will collect FRT data.

“Facial recognition will be used to improve the technology. We won’t be relying on it. Facial recognition [data] will be captured but just to see whether the levels of accuracy have improved or not.” — Jayesh Ranjan, Principal Secretary, IT and Industries department, Telangana

Ranjan was referring to Telangana’s homegrown RTDAI system, which is used by the state government 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 sourced 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.

Ranjan added that information about the process of registering mobile devices for e-voting will be announced by the TSEC, and he wouldn’t be able to share information on it.

E-voting to expand to Warangal, Khammam; ECI shows interest

The TSEC announced on Monday that pending its success in the GHMC elections, the e-voting system will be tried out in elections to the Khammam Municipal Corporation and Greater Warangal Municipal Corporation, both of which are expected to be held in 2021.

Ranjan said that the e-voting system could potentially be used in all state elections in the future. “Once we successfully complete the exercise, we will send a report to the ECI [Election Commission of India],” he said. He added the ECI has already set up internal committees to explore e-voting, and Telangana is in a position to show a successful test-case for the same in GHMC.

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