The BJP and the Congress are now going hammer and tongs at each other for harvesting social media data to profile voters, manipulate them and win elections. The political posturing is a fallout of the scandal that has broken out in UK over a London-based data firm Cambridge Alytica which sold its services to political campaigns in other countries, its most notable success touted to be sending Dold Trump to the White House in 2016. The uproar began with Christopher Wylie, a young researcher and one of Cambridge Alytica’s founder members, blowing the whistle on a data-gathering program that included tapping into the Facebook profiles of 50 million American users. The heart of this program was a persolity-testing app developed by a Cambridge academic, which mined through the enormous database to find out the political leanings of users and all their Facebook friends, and then targeted them with persuasive messaging by the Trump campaigners. A remorseful Wylie is presently working with the British authorities; shocked at the revelations, lawmakers in US and Europe are demanding that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg should explain how the persol data of tens of millions of FB users were collected in uuthorized manner by a shadowy company. There are growing suspicions that Cambridge Alytica may have turned the data over to Russian hackers accused of interfering in the US presidential elections to swing the vote in Trump’s favour. The German Justice Ministry has reportedly summoned Zuckerberg to clarify whether the persol data of 30 million Facebook users in Germany “were protected from unlawful use by third parties”. In the past, Cambridge Alytica had made various claims about having worked in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Australia and Malaysia; the Brazilian government has already begun a probe to get to the bottom of such claims.
It remains to be seen whether India will get tough with Facebook over its massive breach of user confidentiality, considering that the number of Indian FB users is estimated at 250 million, second only to the US. IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has sounded a warning that if there is data theft of Indian users through collusion of Facebook’s system, as well as any attempt to influence elections, “it shall not be tolerated”, and that Zuckerberg could be summoned to India under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (which can extend to offences committed outside Indian territory). It is imperative that political parties in the country close ranks over this issue, or else millions of Indians, with their persol data stored in foreign servers, will become mere ‘products’ to be manipulated cynically for commercial and other purposes. The controversy here has been triggered by the website of Ovleno Business Intelligence, the Indian affiliate of Cambridge Alytica — listing the BJP, Congress and JD(U) as clients. A war of words has now broken out between BJP and Congress, denying links with Ovleno while accusing each other of illegally harvesting data to swing elections. The problem is that both the Congress-led UPA and BJP-led NDA have shown idequate application of mind so far as privacy of citizens’ persol data is concerned. This cavalier attitude has been shown up time and again over Aadhaar data security worries, with the Supreme Court constitutiol bench presently hearing a clutch of petitions on this privacy issue. The SC bench said recently that while the Centre came out with a law in 2016 to negate the objection that it was collecting Aadhaar data since 2009 without any authorisation, the issue which needs consideration is what will happen if the data collected earlier, have been compromised. When government backed Aadhaar project can generate such misgivings about data privacy, one wonders whether the government at all has any gameplan to deal with data breach by big players like Facebook.
Zuckerberg has meanwhile admitted mistakes in handling users’ data on the Facebook platform, and has promised to uphold the integrity of upcoming elections in various countries including India. He has further outlined security measures like using artificial intelligence (AI) tools to root out rogue bots and apps, to ban developers who don’t agree to audit, and limit data to usermes, profile photos and email unless the developer gets user approval. With Facebook stocks plunging and advertisers in countries like UK demanding better data security, Zuckerberg’s contrite tone can be understood. What users need to realize is that in exchange of services offered by social media, they give away persol data like me, gender, date of birth, e-mail, mobile number, employment details, home town, current location, family photos, each and every friend and acquaintance on social networks, all issues they ‘like’, every site they browse and advertisement they click upon. Third party app developers can access this data for commercial purposes; thereafter, the data can be turned over to data alysis companies which can process it for political parties or other clients. With online advertising and digital marketing growing by leaps and bounds, popular platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram must be held to account for ensuring user data security. As for users, they need to take better control of their online activities and be more mindful and smarter about ensuring their privacy.