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All about Telangana’s plan to use facial recognition, blockchain for voting via smartphones

Telangana shows that it’s serious about remote voting in a trial that involves three-factor authentication and a ‘liveness check’.

The Telangana government has initiated a dry run of a smartphone-based eVoting solution that leverages technologies such as blockchain, facial recognition, and Aadhaar authentication to record one’s vote. The project will be tested again in a mock vote which has been scheduled in Khammam district on October 20.

The voting will be recorded on the TSEC-Vote App developed for Android smartphones now made available in English and Telugu. This development comes after the Telangana State Election Commission in 2020 announced that it was planning to use the e-Voting solution for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections. However, the plan was shelved for the time being because officials realised that they had to bring in amendments to certain laws to take the plan further.

A screengrab of the TSEC eVote Android app which will record votes of Khammam citizens in a dummy election

India still does not have proper data protection or privacy legislation in place that regulates the usage of facial recognition. In addition to that, the Pegasus spyware attack drove home the message that smartphones, be it an iPhone or an Android, are not necessarily foolproof when it comes to thwarting cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and that there will always remain a chance of a device getting compromised. Keeping in mind that a vote is anonymised, how technologies that are being deployed for the e-Voting process cope with cybersecurity threats remains to be seen.

What are the technologies to be used in the e-Voting app?

The process will have three-factor authentication of a valid voter, which includes:

  • Name matching with Aadhaar
  • “Liveness detection” of individual
  • Image matching with EPIC Database (with up to 15~20-year-old records).

It will also have blockchain (Distributed Ledger) “which has been used to secure the de-identified and encrypted votes so that they are maintained as immutable record,” the release said.

How would it work?

According to Telangana State Technology Services MD GT Venkateswara Rao, 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. Rao claimed that this will solve the problem of bogus voting through impersonation. It must be noted that even the UN Human Rights Council has acknowledged that biometric (facial) recognition is prone to bias and error.

What about security?

According to the release, the app —

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  • Binds a device ID and phone number to a specific citizen registration process such that only the same device can be used during voting.
  • Entire voting process can be monitored and controlled by an admin using a web portal.
  • Generation/access of results will require a physical security token based decryption.
  • The data will be stored in the State Date Centres (SDCs)

Where will it be deployed?

The release said, “A dry run in the form of a dummy election is being conducted in the Khammam district with the registration on the application open from 8th to 18th October, and the dummy voting on 20th October. Although the initial scope was limited to a subset of citizens, the dry run is open for all citizens of the district.”

Who developed the app and tech?

The initiative which comes under the Telangana State Election Commission (TSEC), was supported by the Emerging Technologies Wing of IT Department of Telangana. Technical development was done by Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) and was guided by an expert committee comprising Prof Rajat Moona, Director of IIT Bhilai and Technical advisor to ECI, and professors from IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the development

Last year, 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 as 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”.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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