Strategic Finance

Tech hitches cause anxiety in Kenyan general elections

Mobile digital transmission of results hit with delays

By Rebecca Wanjiku

Kenya entered the second day of vote counting Wednesday as network connectivity, data transmission and server configuration issues hindered the final result announcement, causing anxiety.

Voting started on Monday and results were expected to be electronically relayed from polling stations by Tuesday night, the final results were expected to be announced. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had put in place an elaborate system that would ensure that presiding officers in 33,000 polling stations would be able to send information via mobile phones to the IEBC national tallying center and at the same time, make the data available to media houses and developers via an API provided by Google.

The system was designed to allow GPRS-enabled mobile devices to transmit voting results, which were gathered from mechanical voting machines locally, over a Virtual Private Network to three national tally centers.

Technical assistance was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and software was provided by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), implemented through a local technology company. Safaricom was also involved in providing handsets and data connectivity for the polling stations to relay the results.

Problems started emerging on Tuesday when election data transmission slowed down, but IEBC Chairman Isaack Hassan announced on television that the commission had ran out of disk space, but the data had not been compromised. After the announcement, ICT experts started speculating whether the problem was with the IFES, Safaricom, Google or the IEBC -- and whether hackers were involved.

"The system is pretty solid from the outside, meaning that from an external assessment, it would take say a government agency to break in since it's running on Safaricom's Virtual Private Network," said Tyrus Kamau, an independent security consultant, who specializes in penetration tests. "Now from an insider point of view, an attacker could have the advantage of seating within a trusted network (Safaricom or IEBC) and would be pre-disposed to perform injection attacks."

As of Wednesday afternoon local time, Uhuru Kenyatta was ahead, at 53 percent to 42 percent over his main rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, according to the election commission website. Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting a local militia to conduct reprisal attacks in the last election.

While the IEBC has kept silent on the actual problem resulting in the delays, Safaricom issued a statement saying that it was not to blame for the challenges faced at IEBC while Google has also confirmed that the extent of its collaboration with IEBC was limited to the website and the API.

"Google provided technology and tools that the IEBC is using on their official website to ensure Kenyans have crucial information they need; the services on and are hosted on Google App Engine and powered by technology we provided; we were not involved with results collection, transmission, tallying or storage," said Dorothy Ooko, Google communications and public affairs manager for East and Francophone Africa. "We only published (via the API) and visualized (via the map) the results from the IEBC."

By providing data via the API, Google allowed the media and developers to build services that could provide the information that people were craving. One of the reasons that Kenya was plunged into post-election violence in its earlier elections was lack of information and manipulation of available data by media organization, depending on who they were supporting. This led to chaos and violence.