Over the years, I’ve been somewhat dismayed by various reports of tampering of EVMs after polls have closed. Especially in this year’s Lok Sabha polls the issue received a lot of coverage.
In this post I present an approach, using digital fingerprints, that will render tampering of EVMs and election results after close of polling useless. While there might be holes in this approach, I still believe there’s merit in discussing this.
- What this DOES NOT solve
- How it works
- Concluding thoughts
- Addendum: Analysis of brute force attacks
The solution involves generating and disclosing to the public a digital fingerprint of the result from each EVM as soon as polls close. Each fingerprint is a seemingly random string of characters, however they have a couple of highly desirable properties:
- A fingerprint is unique to each permutation of the result i.e. two different results will practically never have the same fingerprint
- It is impossible to figure out the election result just by looking at the fingerprint
The fingerprints are generated using a cryptographic hash function. In subsequent sections, we will see how they work. But first, it’s very important to understand what this solution does not solve.
What this DOES NOT solve
The solution proposed here cannot prevent tampering of EVMs before, or during, the election. Nor cannot it solve the problem of booth capture.
It only focuses on securing one aspect of the polling process, and that is manipulation of election results after polling closes. In fact, it only works if EVMs have not been tampered with, and booth capture has not occurred.
After disclosure of the digital fingerprint, which should be done as soon as polling closes, tampering of EVMs becomes irrelevant as an altered result will not be able to match the disclosed fingerprint.
How it works
The following sections get into the details of how this scheme works.
Crytographic hash functions
(Skip this section if you already know how they work)
A cryptographic hash function is a mathematical construct that takes an input text of any length and mixes its bytes to produce a fixed size string. This string, also known as a digest or a hash, is a digital fingerprint of the input message.
Examples of such hash functions include MD5, SHA-1, SHA-3, etc.
Some example (SHA-1) hashes are shown below:
|the quick brown fox||
|the quick brown fix||
|the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog||
A few important properties of cryptographic hashes are:
- It is extremely easy to calculate the hash of any text
- It is extremely difficult to find a text that has a given hash
- If you have a text and its hash, it is extremely difficult to find another text that has the same hash.
Also, as the second and third examples show, even a slight change in text input usually leads to large changes in the output hash.
So, while it’s very easy to calculate the hash of the string “The quick brown
fox jumps over the lazy dog”, it is impossible to do the reverse – if all you
had was the hash
3e4991b48bcb1bd9d3c4c14a1f24c415deaba466, you won’t be able
to find the string that produced this hash.
Moreover, it is impossible to find another string that has the same hash.
Hash functions are also deterministic i.e. they will always produce the same output for the same input, no matter when or how many times they are called.
It is important to understand that that hash functions DO NOT encrypt the input string. There is no secret key involved, so there’s no chance of losing a key that will break the whole scheme. Hash functions only take one input – the text for which the digest needs to be produced.
(Note that while the examples here use SHA-1, it is quite old and not as secure anymore. It is recommended to use SHA-3 instead. The only reason we use SHA-1 here is for the purpose of readability - hash strings generated by SHA-3 are a bit longer)
Using hash functions to secure election results
What we are trying to achieve is this: once polling closes, we want a guarantee that the result in an EVM at that moment will not be different from the result that is revealed on counting day.
The result recorded in an EVM is simply a sequence of numbers, where each number indicates the votes received by a candidate (the order of these numbers is the same as the order of candidates on the ballot unit, which is fixed a few weeks prior to voting).
Assume that at a polling station there are five candidates, and the result
stored inside the EVM at close of polling is this:
400,300,500,200,100. (i.e. the first candidate received 400 votes, the second
candidate received 300 votes, and so on). The SHA-1 hash of this string is
The EVM will only reveal the generated hash string and nothing else. This can safely be disclosed to the public at large.
On the day of counting, the EVM reveals the actual result. Anyone can look at the result and compute its hash. If the computed hash matches the hash revealed earlier, one can be fairly confident that the EVM has not been tampered with or replaced after polling closed.
How do we know that this works? Remember that even if you know the original string and the hash, you cannot find another string that has the same hash. So even if someone were to break into an EVM, view the result and change it, they can’t find another sequence of numbers that would have the same hash. Replacing an EVM won’t help either since the hash is already public.
Another important aspect to consider is that one shouldn’t be able to figure out the result from the hash. Remember that it is impossible to figure out the original string just from the hash, so this should in theory work. However, since we already know the number of candidates and the voters, it may not be that difficult to calculate the result by brute force, especially if the number of candidates or voters is low. We’ll discuss this in more detail next.
Calculating the result by brute force
Consider a polling station with 50 voters and only 2 candidates. There are only 51 ways in which the vote share can be divided between the two candidates:
0,50 1,49 2,48 ... 50,0
So if someone wants to know the poll result beforehand, they can simply compute the hash for all 51 permutations of the result (i.e. create a rainbow table):
Now compare the hash provided by the EVM with the hashes in this table. The result is the one whose hash matches with the one provided by the EVM.
In essence, you are not breaking the hash function, but since the number of possible inputs is small, you don’t need to. You can simply compute the hash of every possible input.
As the number of candidates and voters increase, the probability of being able to carry out a brute force attack decreases:
At 100 voters and 5 candidates, commodity hardware can crack the result in seconds.
At 600 voters and 10 candidates, the fastest bitcoin mining hardware around (which specializes in computing hashes at a high speed) will take a few days to crack the result.
At 1000 voters and 15 candidates, one can be fairly confident that even a nation-state cannot brute force their way to the result anytime soon.
(See the addendum for a more detailed analysis behind these numbers)
All said and done, cryptographic hash functions alone are not sufficient to protect the secrecy of election results. How do we fix this?
The answer lies in randomization. Generate a long enough random number, append it to the result text, then compute the hash of this combined text. On counting day, when the results are revealed, the random number that was used should be revealed too, so that hash computation can still be verified independently.
Going back to our hypothetical result string:
400,300,500,200,100. Let’s say
the EVM generates this random number:
249825579. We simply append this number
to the result:
400,300,500,200,100,249825579 and compute the hash of the
combined text. The resultant hash is revealed immediately. And on counting day,
the randomly generated number
249825579 is also revealed alongwith the each
candidate’s vote count.
What’s a long enough random number? A 128-bit random number (i.e. a number picked at random from 2128 possibilites) should be good enough. If a true 128-bit random number is appended to every result text, no matter how low the number of voters/candidates are, the number of permutations is no less than 2128. This is big enough that even if you had the all the bitcoin mining hardware in the world at your disposal, Earth itself will be incinerated by the Sun before you can compute the result.
The problem with random numbers, though, is that generating truly random numbers is hard. And it is impossible to generate them from software without an external source of randomness. Do EVMs ship with a component that generates high quality random numbers? I think not.
Can this scheme work? Probably yes.
Is it feasible to do this today? Probably no.
As discussed under randomization, EVMs most likely don’t ship with a hardware based random number generator. So adopting this approach will likely require a hardware upgrade to EVMs, besides firmware upgrades. This alone makes this scheme quite infeasible in the short term.
Disclosure of voting patterns
One of the problems that has come up with EVMs (that didn’t exist with paper ballots) is that candidates will know how many votes they received from each polling station in their constituency. Some of them have threatened voters with post-poll reprisals if a particular area did not vote for them. This led to the introduction of a Totalizer that allows votes cast in about 14 polling stations to be counted together.
Our approach, which requires the hash and the random number to be generated in the EVM, is not compatible with this.
For it to work, it’s the totalizer instead of the EVMs that needs to change.
- All the EVMs whose results are mixed in a single totalizer will need to be brought together as soon as polls close,
- Random number and hash generation will happen in the totalizer after the results from these EVMs are added up.
Impact of VVPATs
In recent years, the election commission introduced VVPAT based EVMs – besides registering the vote electronically, VVPAT machines also print the vote on a paper, and store the paper votes in a sealed ballot box.
Unfortunately, only a small subset of paper votes are counted and tallied with the EVM result. If all the paper based votes were to be counted, that combined with a verifiable digital fingerprint of the result will, in my opinion, go a long way towards assuring the public about the sanctity of the polling process.
Addendum: Analysis of brute force attacks
A more technical analysis of the efficacy of brute force attacks
For a polling station with n voters and k candidates, the number of different permutations of the result is n+k-1Ck-1. The stars and bars method proves this theorem.
- For 50 voters and 2 candidates, 51C1 = 51 different results
- For 100 voters and 5 candidates, 104C4 = 4598126 different results
- For 600 voters and 10 candidates, there are 29922628655119426996 results
- For 1000 voters and 15 candidates, there are 12734260985725567134324924085926 results
How powerful a computer would you need to crack these results?
- Clearly 51 hashes can easily be cracked by any computing device.
- Commodity desktop hardware can generally compute upto a few million hashes per second. This is good enough to crack the result for 100 voters and 5 candidates in a few seconds.
- At 600 voters and 10 candidates, we get into quintillions of hashes. Commodity hardware is no match for this. However today’s most powerful bitcoin mining hardware can compute more than 50 trillion hashes per second. At this rate it will take a bitcoin miner around a week to crack the result. Well within the reach of individuals, forget nation states.
- At 1000 voters and 15 candidates though, the number is so huge that even if you had the peak hash rate of the entire bitcoin network (60 million trillion hashes per second) at your disposal, it would still take more than 6000 years to crack the result.
Finally, if you add a 128-bit random number in the mix, even with all the computation power of the bitcoin network, you would still need hundreds of billions of years to crack the result, well outside the realm of possibility.