What the hack?

Published January 23, 2022
The writer is a poet and analyst.
The writer is a poet and analyst.

THE PTI has legislated that the next general elections will be held through electronic voting machines (EVM). Everyone else opposed it for a two-fold reason. One, every election in Pakistan is tainted with accusations of having been ‘stolen’ by quarters that have become better at electronic snooping and manipulating back-end systems. Second, the introduction of technology in casting ballots paved the way for giving non-resident Pakistanis the right to vote with a click of the keyboard.

The dirty-tricks brigade has allegedly stolen every election by using everything from strong-arm tactics to bribery, ballot stuffing to waylaying Election Commission personnel, enabling their favourites to canvass freely and virtually restricting those on their negative list to the four walls of their homes for fear of losing life or limb. However, its increasing technological prowess leaves those not on the ‘same page’ with it at a huge disadvantage.

For decades, expats have been bridging the gap between our exports and imports. Their remittances have been welcomed and even applauded as ‘patriotic’ for enabling us to spend more than we earn. While their remittances are welcome, their votes apparently are not. The reason is simple. A very large number of expats are believed to be ‘naively’ enamoured of Imran Khan and the prospect of a couple of million votes tipping the scales decisively in the PTI’s favour sends a shudder down many a spine.

Optics and perceptions apart, this does pose a practical challenge. The electorate has so far only suffered the representative who never visits the constituency. Now the situation is about to be made to stand on its head, ie the fate of an entire constituency can be decided by voters who are not only presently away but may never even visit it. Is it fair for the absent to decide the fate of the present?

Is it fair for the absent to decide the fate of the present?

Two major takeaways from this situation are: a) no one has stopped the opposition from mobilising their overseas chapters and they should have worked on it instead of begrudging Imran Khan’s popularity among the expats; b) make both the taxpayer and the collector accountable for the dismal tax-to-GDP ratio. A population of 200 million-plus can only boast 2m or so income tax filers. Since the expats have been paying the piper, they will call the tune for a while it seems.

On how perceptions generally trump reality, just imagine what would happen if it were India that was accused of creating and then covering up something like the Covid pandemic? How many Pakistanis would wait for some UN body to hold an investigation into the matter before holding special prayers to condemn the ‘eternal enemy’? How many in India would behave any differently if the boot was on the other foot? Hence while government spokespersons can talk up the benefits of the EVMs all they want, the upcoming election has been sullied even before it is held.

According to a New York Times report last year, some 4,000 plus gas stations all across Iran suffered a cyberattack allegedly perpetrated by Israel. Millions of people suffered for want of petrol in this oil-rich country. The Iranian government had to send technicians to each and every petrol station in the country to reboot the system. The hackers further thumbed their noses at the government by taking control of billboards that started reading messages like ‘the people want petrol’. Not ones to take things lying down, an allegedly Iran-based group of hackers, according to the same NYT report, launched a counterattack by making personal information of the Israeli LGBTQ community public.

Numbers from the 2013 and 2018 elections show that in Pakistan it can take as little as 4m votes to determine the outcome of national elections. While the total numbers of rejected votes in Punjab alone can run into twice as many votes, and if national and provincial assembly votes are disaggregated, those rejected in either category are enough to change the respective result.

Out of the 9m or so expats who just became eligible to vote, almost half live in the Middle East and given that they would mostly be adults, this cohort alone can formulate the swing-vote that can influence the formation of the central government. Throw in the second and third largest groups of overseas Pakistanis, ie those living in the UK and North America, and the eligible voters amongst the expats can definitely help a party sweep both national and provincial assembly elections.

Technology is a great enabler but it comes at a cost. Constant innovation and vigil against breaches is the name of the game. Remember the attacks on the central bank of Bangladesh or the recent hacking of the FBR database? Whether technology is a bat that hits the ball out of the stadium or edges it into the keeper’s gloves remains to be seen.

The writer is a poet and analyst.


Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2022



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