THE fallout over personal data harvested from social media networks reached India as the country set a deadline of Saturday (31) for British firm Cambridge Analytica to respond
to questions concerning whether it improperly gathered Facebook data on Indian citizens.
India will hold its general election in 2019 and the country’s information technology minister has warned against any abuse of social media, following reports that the company improperly accessed information on millions of Facebook users to target US voters.
“The fairness of Indian democracy and electoral process is a matter of pride and any attempt to influence the sanctity of the electoral franchise through dubious and questionable means is unacceptable,” the ministry said in a statement.
On Tuesday (27), whistle blower Christopher Wylie told British MPs in London that Cambridge Analytica had worked on projects in India.
Wylie told the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee he understood the firm’s client was India’s main opposition Congress party.
“I believe their client was Congress, but I know that they have done all kinds of projects, both regional – I don’t remember a national project, but I know regionally… India is so big that one state can be as big as Britain,” he said.
“But they do have offices there, they do have staff there.”
Wylie, who was formerly Cambridge Analytica’s director of research, added he could provide documentation for the work conducted in India if the committee wished to see it.
Six questions have been raised in the Indian ministry’s notice, from whether the firm engaged in profiling based on the data collected, to how the data was used and if consent had been secured from the concerned individuals.
The deadline followed reports that Indian political parties had used the political consultancy firm during elections. Several states in India are preparing to elect new assemblies this year and the next.
The Indian government was deeply concerned with allegations that data could have been used to influence people’s behaviour, the ministry said. It has threatened to take legal action against companies and individuals engaging in any unauthorised use of such data.
Attempts to seek comment from the London-based data firm, via social media, went unanswered.
Last Wednesday (21), BBC reported that the India website of Cambridge Analytica had
been taken down.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister of law and justice in India, told local reporters last Wednesday that data abuse of social media could not be allowed to have an impact of fairness within political elections.
“In the wake of recent data theft from Facebook, let my stern warning be heard across the Atlantic, far away in California. Any covert or overt attempt to misuse social media, including Facebook, to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will
neither be tolerated, nor be permitted,” Prasad asserted.
Facebook said Prasad had raised several important questions and the company appreciates
his attention to this matter.
“We will continue to engage with the government on this matter. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect peoples’ information and will take whatever steps are required that this happens,” the company said in a statement.
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said the company was committed to stopping interference in elections in India and Brazil and the US midterm election in November.
On Monday (26), India’s ruling and main opposition parties, prime minister Narendra Modi’s
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party of Rahul Gandhi, both accused each other of using social media apps to harvest and share followers’ personal data.
Gandhi accused Modi of using his official app NaMo “to build a personal database… on millions of Indians”.
“He’s the Big Boss who likes to spy on Indians,” Gandhi told his 6.34 million Twitter followers, referring to India’s version of the Big Brother TV show in which individuals
are monitored 24 hours a day.
“Modi’s NaMo App secretly records audio, video, contacts of your friends & family and even
tracks your location via GPS,” he added, using the hashtag “DeleteNaMoApp”.
He added: “If as PM he wants to use tech to communicate with India, no problem. But use the official PMO APP for it. This data belongs to India, not Modi.”
As Eastern Eye went to press, Gandhi had not commented on the allegations against his own Congress party on claims they had taken down a membership website and mobile app because of security flaws and allegations that it too was sharing people’s personal data.
Modi had also not commented on the issue regarding his own app. The row erupted at the weekend after a French security researcher and hacker, who tweets as Elliot Alderson, blamed Modi’s personal app of having compromised the personal data of Indian citizens including emails, photos and names before being sent to a third-party domain without authorisation.
“The issue with this App is that they send the personal data of their user to a third-party company without their consent,” Alderson informed a news source.
The BJP responded to Gandhi’s allegations on Twitter, claiming the politician is trying to divert attention. The ruling party also has accused the Congress of engaging Cambridge Analytica in India, a charge the opposition party has denied.
Modi is the most popular politician on Indian social media. His app has been downloaded more than five million times, and his Twitter account has more than 41 million followers.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal broke earlier this month when whistle-blower Wylie revealed approximately 50 million Facebook profiles had personal information taken without consent in 2014 to construct a system that could outline individual US voters, to target them with tailored political advertisements.
Wylie told a British newspaper: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologised for the scandal in a series of full page newspaper ads across the US and the UK at the weekend.
It was announced on Tuesday the entrepreneur refused to attend the UK parliament’s request to be questioned by politicians over the data abuse.