Unravelling ‘cyber expert’ Syed Shuja’s web of claims

A comprehensive fact-check of all Shuja’s statements.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
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The EVM press conference on the evening of January 21 by Syed Shuja in London has sparked conspiracy theories in political circles and the media. Organised by the Indian Journalists Association, the press conference was meant to feature Shuja demonstrating the hacking of EVMs. Instead, he joined via a video call, saying he’d been attacked four days prior to the presentation.

The claims made in the conference are not only controversial but also sound a tad too fantastical. They range from the rigging of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to the killing of senior BJP leader Gopinath Munde because he knew the EVMs were hacked, to Shuja’s team working on EVMs for the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) being shot dead after he left the country.

Given the incredulous nature of these claims, Newslaundry decided to investigate and fact-check Shuja’s claims. Newslaundry accessed the email sent by IJA president Ashish Raj to journalists, which contains the transcript of an email interview with Shuja sent to the IJA. The identity of the interviewer is unknown. The email interview contains all the claims Shuja made at the London press conference—and some more. Newslaundry also visited Hyderabad to verify Shuja’s claims.

Claim 1: Shuja says his 13-member team was working on Project Ms7b for the ECIL. These members were identified as Anirudh Behl, Keshav Prabhu, Syed Mohiuddin, Shujauddin Mohammad, Fareed Aklui, Ajaaz Khan, Hamza Habib, Kamal Rao, Rohan Akewar, Raj Ayyappa, Anusree Dinkar, Srikant Tamnerwar and Prakash Reddy. Shuja claims 11 members of the team were shot dead on the morning of May 13, 2014, at the guesthouse of Kaki Reddy—brother-in-law of former BJP MLA Kishan Reddy—in the suburb of Uppal, Hyderabad. Shuja says the guesthouse was near Little Flower Junior College in Uppal.

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The list of the members of Project Ms7b.

Fact check: Newslaundry crisscrossed the five-kilometre radius of Little Flower Junior College for four hours. There is no guesthouse in the area owned by Kaki Reddy.

The college itself is a combined establishment—containing the school, junior college and degree college—with two main gates on two different sides. One gate is on Beerappa Gadda Road and the other on Uppal Ring Road. The entrance on Beerappa Gadda Road is near the localities of Prashant Nagar and Beerappa Gadda. The area contains several government offices, including the 200-acre Survey of India premises, the office of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, Uppal, and the residential premises of the Centre for DNA, Fingerprinting and Diagnostics.

Newslaundry explored all the lanes and buildings in and adjacent to these areas and spoke to many residents as well. They all denied the existence of any guesthouse.

GS Raj, 65, has lived in Prashant Nagar for 40 years. He says, “I have spent a major part of my life here and know this area very well. As per my knowledge, there is no guesthouse in the area of anyone called Kaki Reddy or any other person, for that manner.” KV Shreedhar, a 52-year-old lawyer who stays in Prashant Nagar says he’s lived here since 1978. “I have never seen any guesthouse in this area till date. The tale of the shooting of 11 people in Uppal wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by people of the area.”

Newslaundry spoke to at least nine other residents, all of whom denied the existence of a guesthouse belonging to Kaki Reddy or any other politician’s relative. As 45-year-old Hari Prasad, who runs a grocery store in Beerappa Gadda, points out: “If 11 people have been shot at some guesthouse near the school, it would have gathered a lot of attention from people as well as the police because Uppal Police Station is close by.”

Little Flower’s other entrance on Uppal Ring Road has the police station about 700 metres away. The entrance faces the Survey of India premises. The neighbourhood of Laxma Reddy Nagar is also near Uppal Cross Road. All the residents interviewed denied the existence of a guesthouse.

Claim 2: Syed Shuja claims he completed his PhD Minors in mathematics and an ME in RF Communications from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad (JNTUH) and a B. Tech from Shadan College, Hyderabad.

Fact check: Newslaundry visited JNTUH and spoke to Dr V Kamakshi Prasad, the director of evaluation, and asked that the records be checked for the names Syed Shuja, Hyder Ahmed Syed (the name mentioned in Shuja’s Form I-94 used by the US Customs and Border Protection), and Mohammad Shujauddin Ahmed. None of the names came up in the records—either as a student of JNTUH or in the PhD course in any stream at the college.

Prasad told Newslaundry: “There is no student by this name who has done a PhD in mathematics or PhD in any other stream. We only provide M. Tech degrees and do not provide courses in ME. I checked the M. Tech students records and no one by those names was found.”

Prasad also said JNTUH does not offer any courses in radio frequency communication.  

Prasad checked the records of B. Tech students of Shadan College, which is affiliated to JNTUH. Two names were similar to Syed Shuja. The first was Mohammad Shujauddin but his father’s name did not match Syed Shuja’s father’s name. The second was Shuja, but she was a female student from Shadan Women’s College.

Claim 3: Shuja says his father’s name is Yousuf Ahmed Syed and his mother’s name is Qudsia Syeda. He says his father worked as an assistant engineer in BHEL till 2006.

Fact check: Newslaundry went to both the establishments of BHEL in Hyderabad at Ramachandrapuram and Balanagar. Enquiries at BHEL, Ramachandrapuram, revealed that no one named Yousuf Ahmed Syed had worked there. Pasha MSI, the deputy officer of human resource welfare, showed Newslaundry the records and said: “No person by the name of Yousuf Ahmed Syed at the post of assistant engineer retired or left the job in 2006.” He also checked the records for other years but found no match.

At the Balanagar R&D office, the manager of human resources, Satyaprakash, said, “No one by the name of Yousuf Ahmed Syed retired from BHEL (R&D) in 2006. No one by that name worked at the post of assistant engineer in BHEL, Balanagar.”

Claim 4: Shuja claims that former BJP MLA G Kishan Reddy killed 11 members of his team at the guesthouse of Kishan Reddy’s brother-in-law, Kaki Reddy. Shuja’s team member Kamal Rao had arranged a meeting with Kishan Reddy. Shuja claims Kishan Reddy, another man, and Kamal Rao entered the room. Kishan Reddy said, “Champai anderki (kill everyone).” The 11 teammates were then shot dead.

Fact check: Newslaundry contacted G Kishan Reddy, a three-time MLA and former National President of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. He said, “I don’t have any relative by the name of Kaki Reddy. My brother-in-law’s name is Srinath Reddy and he works in the irrigation department at the Secretariat. This is a baseless allegation.”

Kishan Reddy said the BJP won one Lok Sabha seat and five Vidhan Sabha seats in Telangana in 2014. “We won just those seats and he [Shuja] says we hacked the EVMs. I have been arrested over 500 times for protesting and taking part in agitations but I don’t have a single criminal case against me. I am not that technology-savvy, nor do I have the resources to hack EVMs.” Reddy said he’s planning to take legal action and will file an FIR against Congress leader Kapil Sibal, who was present at the London press conference.

Claim 5: Shuja claims the 2014 Kishanbagh riots were a set-up to cover up the mass murder of his team.

Fact check: Newslaundry approached ACP Chitkar Kushalkar, Central Crime Station, who had been the SHO of Rajendra Nagar Police Station and investigated the Kishanbagh riots. Kushalkar said: “I was the investigating officer in that case. As far as I know, those riots erupted because of local issues and not as a set-up to cover up some alleged killings related to EVM hacking.”

He said conflict had existed between the Sikh and Muslim communities. A piece of animal flesh had been found hanging from the gate of a Gurudwara, but nothing happened at the time. A week later, on May 14, a flag of Nishan Saheb was found half-burnt by Sikh youths, which triggered the violence. The youths attacked the Muslim neighbourhood of Arsh Mahal. The police controlled the situation but after a couple of hours, stone pelting began after the arrival of a Muslim leader. The violence then escalated.

Kushalkar said, “During our investigation, it was found that the flag was burnt out of negligence. A local Muslim scrap dealer was burning scrap on the intervening night of May 13- 14 and didn’t pay attention. The fire burnt the flag—he confessed to this. That’s why the riots erupted, due to this man’s negligence and the high handedness of some Sikh youths. It wasn’t some cover up to hide killings related to EVM hacks. That’s an absurd allegation.”

Claim 6: Shuja says he sought political asylum in the US as he felt threatened in India. He claims that after he reached the US, he was in the hospital for 18 days and then in detention for 16 days. When he was released from detention on June 17, 2014, his friend told him his house had been burnt down, his parents had died in the fire, and his wife and kids were missing—this would be during the “cover” of the Kishanbagh riots. The friend sent him a “paper cutting” dated May 14, 2014. In the same interview transcript, Shuja mentions May 17 as the date his house burnt down.

Fact check: The Kishanbagh riots took place on the morning of May 14, 2014—there is no question of news related to it being published in any newspaper on the same morning. News articles about it appeared in newspapers only on May 15.

Newslaundry visited Arsh Mahal area in Kishanbagh and met those whose houses were burnt during the riots. Newslaundry asked if any casualties had occurred when the houses were set on fire. Shaikh Abdul Qadir, whose house was burnt, said, “Around five houses were burnt in Arsh Mahal area. But no one died in the fire.” Newslaundry spoke to five others whose houses were burnt: Farheen Begum, Mohammad Mansoor Ali Khan, Saliya Begum and Shaikh Mohsin Baba—all confirmed no casualties had taken place.

Police records, locals and the media confirm that three men died on May 14 in the Kishanbagh violence: auto driver Mohammad Fareed (25), electrician Mohammad Sajauddin Khatib (38), and polishing worker Mohammad Wali. They were killed during the riots in police firing, not in incidents of arson. None of the three is Shuja’s parents. The names of those whose houses were burnt also don’t include Shuja’s parents.

Newslaundry visited Chandulal Baradari Fire Station and ask about fire incidents on May 17, 2014. L Narasimhan Reddy, the fire officer, said: “As per the records of our fire station and the records of the fire brigade department in Hyderabad, no house fire incident was reported on May 17. If something of that sort happened in any part of the city, we would have come to know about it.”

Claim 7: In the email interview, Shuja says his team worked from different locations but mostly at the head office of ECIL in Sanath Nagar, Hyderabad.

Fact check: ECIL does not have a head office in Sanath Nagar. Its registered office and the ECIL factory are in Kushaiguda, Hyderabad.

Claim 8:  Shuja claims he and his team were working with ECIL on behalf of Win Solutions. In the email interview, the interviewer asks Shuja about the relationship between “ECIL and Win Solutions (Sukesh Narayan)”. Shuja responds that the interviewer should “do some research”.

Fact check: Newslaundry found someone called Sukesh Narayan who works as senior manager, HR, in WIN IT Private Ltd and WIN IT Mobile Solutions Private Ltd. The two companies are owned by the same directors—Prakash Sreewastava and Pallika Sreewastava.

WIN IT Private Ltd’s office is in Laxmi Cyber Towers in Kondapur, Hyderabad. WIN IT Mobile Solutions Private Ltd has its office in Film Nagar, Jubilee Hills. There’s no company named “Win Solutions”.

Newslaundry visited Narayan’s office in Kondapur to ask about Shuja and Win Solutions, but he was not available. He later responded to email queries: “It is surprising to read the claims made in the mail. WIN IT has never undertaken any work for ECIL. According to our records, there is no person by the name of Syed Shuja who has worked with WIN IT as an employee or consultant.”

Newslaundry spoke to Ramesh Gollapudi, ECIL’s official spokesperson, about Shuja’s claims. Gollapudi said: “First of all, no person by the name of Syed Shuja has ever worked with ECIL. ECIL has not given any subcontract to Win Solutions or WIN IT. These claims are false to the core.”

Claim 9: Shuja says his “co-worker from ECIL”, Vamshi Reddy, came to meet him to “get the VVPAT bug fixed”. On September 9, 2018, he says Vamshi Reddy was murdered when a bus ran over him in Gachibowli, Hyderabad.

Fact check: As per police records, no bus accident occurred on September 9, 2018, in Gachibowli. A bus accident did occur on the morning of September 10, 2018, when three people were rammed to death by a Telangana State Road Transport Corporation bus. The Raidurgam Police identified the three as Janardan Shivaji, an IT professional from Bengaluru, an auto driver named Abdul Hameed from Hyderabad, and an auto driver named Dasrath from Hyderabad. The driver, Mohammad Jahangir, fled the scene but was later arrested. The accident was widely reported in the media.

To verify Shuja’s claims of a bus accident killing Vamshi Reddy, Newslaundry met M Ram Babu, station house officer of Raidurgam Police Station, under whose jurisdiction Gachibowli falls. Babu said: “The accident occurred on September 10 and no one by the name of Vamshi Reddy died in the accident. No accident occurred on September 9, 2018, in Gachibowli. In fact, the bus accident on September 10 was the only bus accident which took place in Gachibowli in 2018.”

Claim 10: Shuja mentions a man named V Shukla, the “IT director of ECIL”, whom the interviewer called “IT Director in the project sub contracted to Win Solutions”. Shuja says Shukla had left the organisation and now lives in Vegas.

Fact check: No one by the name V Shukla has worked in the post of “IT director” in ECIL. The post itself doesn’t exist in ECIL.

Newslaundry found someone named VN Shukla who joined the Election Commission of India—not ECIL—in 2014 as IT Director. He currently works there in Delhi, India and confirmed this to Newslaundry.

A case of confusing identities

Newslaundry found Shuja’s Form I-94 on which he was granted asylum. He is named Hyder Ahmed Syed on this form. Upon searching the web with this name, two profiles emerge — one that states that Hyder Ahmed Syed is an employee of Lockheed Martin and another that mentions that Hyder Ahmed Syed is the co-founder of AOC Inc. None of the profiles speaks of his association with WIN or ECIL.

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A copy of Shuja’s Form I-94.

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In this profile, he is mentioned himself to be the co-founder of AOC Inc. AOC Inc’s website says that it was formed in 2002 by Jack and Josephine Abbot. The company works in the field of designing Navy ships.

Other claims

The interviewer asked Shuja “the prime motive for eliminating” the 11 team members. Shuja said, “Go and ask Modi or Amit shah or Mehra, or go and ask any politician why do they want to contest election (sic)?” He also provided the interviewer with a “Barclays bank account” number that he said belonged to a Congress member: 026002574 a/c 699397260. Newslaundry found that “026002574” is the routing number of Barclays Bank in New York City.

Shuja claimed that AAP leader Manish Sisodia met him in the US on January 25, 2015, and journalist Arnab Goswami met him in the US in November 2015.

Sources close to Arnab Goswami said he has not been to the US since 2014. When Newslaundry contacted AAP leader Manish Sisodia about Shuja’s claim, he said: “This has no substance. January 2015 was my Assembly election month.”

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The document granting Shuja asylum status.

IJA president Ashish Ray told Newslaundry Shuja had sent him the email interview when Ray asked for evidence to substantiate Shuja’s claims. Ray added: “I don’t know who has taken this interview. I already said before the press conference that IJA has no views on the matter. It’s for journalists and news organisations to interpret his (Shuja’s) views and investigate if they wish.” IJA documents state Shuja was granted asylum status on March 1, 2018.

Checking Shuja’s claims on how to hack EVMs

During the press conference, Shuja made several claims on the procedure of hacking EVMs. Newslaundry discussed these claims with Pune-based Ajit Hatti, a white hat hacker who participated in an EVM hackathon last year at DEF CON, Las Vegas—the world’s largest hacking convention. Hatti is also an advisor to the Indian armed forces on cryptology.

Hatti said any machine can be hacked, but not in the way Shuja claims. “Shuja’s claims about the rigging of the 2014 elections and hacking of EVMs by the BJP using a military grade frequency modulator seems to be absurd. EVMs have no wireless interfaces so you can’t do anything without physically accessing the EVM. There is no known way to tamper data using any kind of transponder whatsoever in the absence of wireless interfaces or through interference. An electronic device can be stalled using electromagnetic impulse, but you can’t craft and alter selective data, i.e. vote counts, in favour of any party.”

Shuja claimed his team stopped EVM hacking in the 2015 Delhi elections by intercepting transmissions. Hatti said, “The person is talking of hacking EVMs through a wireless interface which doesn’t exist, through a technique which is unheard of and unverified, and by exploiting an unknown vulnerability which is even remotely and hypothetically not possible. Even if an attack on nationwide EVMs is possible and can be done by an established telecom Jio, then to intercept those attacks, you need access to similar telecom-like infrastructure which an individual or a team cannot have at their disposal without state or corporation’s support.”

Newslaundry asked Hatti about Shuja’s claim that the BJP would have won the elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh if his teams hadn’t intercepted the BJP’s attempt to hack EVMs. He said: “Assuming these claims are true, they must share their defence technique publicly to save democracy. We request them to provide the public with a step-by-step guide to detect and thwart EVM hacking attempts and let millions of people join hands to defend democracy. That’s what hackers do, they strive to build a better world.”

Shuja claimed that Jio helped the BJP get low-frequency signals to hack EVMs. He said there are nine facilities from where Reliance is transmitting the data. Hatti said: “Jio was not established at that time. Even if they were, they were operating under TRAI guidelines which were directly under the UPA government. Agencies like the IB, RAW, IT and Excise have access to every communication done by telecom operators. Such attacks—if at all possible—can’t go unnoticed.”

Newslaundry reached out to Rajat Moona, former Director-General of CDAC and a member of the Election Commission’s technical panel on EVMs. Moona said: ”There is no communication mechanism in Indian EVMs to communicate with wireless. In order to communicate with wireless, an antenna is required. Indian EVMs don’t have any sort of antenna or port. He (Shuja) has made ridiculous claims. Basically, he is saying that calculators are being hacked using signals from mobile phones.”


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