The promises of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)to embrace the use of technology in the conduct of the 2023 general election in line with the new Electoral Act 2022 and its regulation, charged up the electorates with passion and enthusiasm to participate massively in the said election.
The faith of electorates in the Nigerian electoral system seemed to be rekindled by the transparency technology offers to the electoral system as INEC on several occasions reemphasised its commitment to transmit all election results electronically in real-time. Electorates were also urged prior to the 2023 elections, to disregard any rumours of the commission’s plan to jettison the electronic transmission of votes in real-time.
However, contrary to the above clear position of INEC on the electronic transmission of votes, INEC failed to electronically transmit the presidential election results. INEC attributed its failure to transmit the presidential election results due to alleged “technical hitches related to scaling the IreV from a platform for managing off-season state elections, to one for managing nationwide general elections”.
In simple language, it had glitches in the electronic transmission process. This is synonymous with the same physical glitches that often pervaded physical conveyance. Electoral material was often hijacked, destroyed, and manipulated when conveyed from the polling unit to the collation centre.
Many of these allegations were proven in previous elections, including the presidential election of 2004. It is not surprising that former president Olusegun Obasanjo was only able to defend his victory by a 4/3 majority at the Supreme Court.
It is to circumvent these challenges that a new electoral Act was introduced prescribing at the very least a preference for electronic transmission. INEC however appears to maintain that there were technical glitches that were somehow beyond its control.
What is a Cloud Service?
The Labour Party has attempted to rebut any allegations that there was a technical glitch, in the cloud service. The petitioners insinuate that if there was any glitch it must have been as a result of sabotage. To prove its case, Labour Party subpoenaed an expert witness who is an employee of Amazon AWS, the company that offered INEC its cloud platform services in the 2023 general elections. In order to appreciate what the witness said it is important to first appreciate how the cloud service operates.
At the elementary level, cloud services are electronic data bank storage systems. Information that can easily be electronically retrieved at the push of a button. Information is stored alongside that of other organisations. Most organisations including INEC find it extremely cost-effective and efficient to store information in a bank, maintained by a reputable third party. While each of these organisations may have an independent backup centre, it will be grossly underutilized.
In addition, such data banks may be subject to power cuts and other resource allocation problems. These problems are usually experienced by the end-user experiencing a network interruption, colloquially referred to as network downtime.
To avoid these interruptions, electronic information is being hosted externally on the cloud. cloud service providers such as Microsoft, Amazon, and IBN establish or build their data centres in remote locations often in colder climates in order to save money or rent and electricity.
INEC is statutorily required to conduct general elections every four years. In between general elections, it conducts bye-elections at intervals, but its data storage needs are nothing close to that required at a presidential election.
Accordingly, it makes sense to pool its data resources via a cloud solution rather than run its platform from its own server. It was germane for INEC to depend on the servers of a cloud provider, in this case, amazon facilities. Cloud computing is comparable to a real-time sharing solution for data centres.
Meanwhile, the electorates who engage with the various INEC applications are none the wiser, as the software interface remains the same. The switch in the back-end server is unknown to the electorate.
The cloud service provider, operating as a data bank for INEC, may have not yet answered the question of whether there were glitches in transmission. The integrity of a storage system is not a guarantee of the transmission of the data conveyed.
Understanding the electronic transmission of election results.
In simple terms, after the accreditation of voters using the Bimodal Voters Accreditation System (BVAS), voters proceed to cast their vote using the ballot paper. At the end of voting, the Presiding Officer at the polling unit counts the votes in the presence of the electorates and party agents and records the results on the polling unit result sheet known as Form EC8A. The Form EC8A duly signed by the Presiding Officer, will be photographed by the Presiding Officer using the BVAS and uploaded on the INEC Result Viewing Portal (IREV) for Nigerians to view in real-time. These polling unit result images are stored in Amazon S3 – an AWS storage device. INEC relied on the AWS secure cloud computing services to store the election results uploaded directly from the polling units. However, this process of transmitting information is largely reliant on internet connectivity.
Possibility of “Glitches” in e-transmission of 2023 election results.
Although the process described above appears simple and direct, there is a possibility of a technical disruption or “glitch” that may hinder a seamless e-transmission of results. This could be as a result of cyber-attacks, lack of or poor internet service/network, or breakdown of the BVAS or INEC’s internal system. There could also be an outage or malfunction in the Amazon S3.
INEC, through the chief press secretary to the INEC chairman – Mr. Rotimi Oyekanmi, publicly stated that the BVAS “performed its duty excellently” on election day. This ruled out the possibility of a breakdown of the BVAS machine as a challenge to the e-transmission of presidential election results. As mentioned earlier, there is also a possibility of internet connectivity issues.
Accordingly, if the information is not transmitted then Amazon’s cloud service is not engaged. It is like a vehicle that failed to convey the electoral material to the collation centre. The absence of connectivity is however somewhat circumvented by the unique storage and capture system of the BVAS. The BVAS machine is alleged to have a feature that stores data offline.
Such data is then transmitted once connectivity is established to the internet. This is just like a mail going to the “Outbox” column pending when it has internet connectivity to successfully transmit to the receiver thereby moving to the “Sent” Column. It is not at this moment clear whether INEC may rely on the possibility of a cyber-attack on the entire transmission system. INEC is yet to present its case.
The Amazon employee who was subpoenaed by Labour Party and their presidential candidate professed to be an expert witness – Mpeh Clarita Ogar, in the ongoing presidential election petition, gave evidence on June 19, 2023.
She tendered in evidence a document evidencing the integrity status of all AWS Cloud services in the 33 regions where AWS Cloud servers are hosted on the date of the presidential election. This means that there was no technical glitch occurred to have disrupted the IREV from performing its function, which is simply to enable Nigerians view the results in real-time as they are being uploaded by the presiding officers from the polling units using the BVAS.
The perfect working condition of the Amazon S3 on election day does not necessarily mean a seamless electronic transmission of the election results. It is possible for information transmitted to the Amazon cloud to still be compromised in the process of transmission.
This may occur if the data is not encrypted. Encryption is the mechanism that transforms data into a unique distinctive text that can only be accessed with a specialised key (unencrypted). Furthermore, if the network connectivity is not secure, it could be intercepted and compromised by third parties. It is therefore imperative for INEC to have proper security measures in place to minimise risk and protect sensitive information.
All that said, it is important to conclude with what might appear an obvious point. No system is 100% flawless or immune to potential technical issues. INEC will shortly have the opportunity to tell the court what indeed happened and why the presidential election results were, as admitted by INEC, not successfully transmitted.
What the tribunal makes of INEC’s inability to transmit, and the reasons offered for the glitch, is a matter for speculation. The outcome of the presidential election petition may indeed turn on this thorny point.
Osaro Eghobamien SAN, (Senior Partner in Perchstone & Graeys), Winifred Igenegbai, and Femi Owoade (Both are Associates in Perchstone & Graeys