Cambridge Analytica row: Parliamentary panel may summon Facebook top brass to seek 'explanations' over India operations

New Delhi: The parliamentary standing committee on information and technology, which on Wednesday discussed citizens' data security and privacy issues in the backdrop of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook users' data breach, is likely to seek explanations from the social media platform's top brass.

Sources requesting anonymity said the Union home secretary Rajiv Gauba and National Cyber Security chief Dr Gulshan Rai, along with other cyber security and intelligence officers, were present at the meeting, and are understood to have explained that the Indian government can enforce the law of the land to seek Facebook's accountability for its operations in the country.

It is learnt that members of the parliamentary panel headed by BJP MP Anurag Thakur were of the view that a Facebook representative's appearance could be sought before the committee to record the evidence and explanation on citizens' data security and breach of privacy. It has been alleged that 87 million Facebook users' data was leaked to Cambridge Analytica worldwide, which mined the data to assist political and other clients.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

"The panel was unanimous in suggesting that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook must be called in for hearing before the report is finalised. While officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs gave a presentation on cyber security capacity enhancing, they have been asked by the panel to provide details of steps taken in the last few years to ensure that various arms of the government had managed to build the capacity to protect privacy of citizens in the virtual world," sources added.

A whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, had earlier revealed that the Indian arm of the data consultancy firm had carried out activities in India, and in association with the SCL Group (Cambridge Analytica's parent company), collated a database of over 600 districts and seven lakh villages.

The details released by Wylie further said the group worked for Assembly elections in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh besides the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as well. "Our services help clients identify and target key groups within the population to effectively influence their behavior to realise a desired outcome. We provide our clients with the research to develop and disseminate the right messages, from the right sources, using the right communication channels," details released by Wylie had claimed.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal had triggered a massive political storm in the country, with allegations flying thick and fast over the penetration of data consultancy firms and whether these services were used to influence election outcomes by Indian political parties.

The parliamentary panel members also expressed concerns that government agencies must protect Indian users from terms of service agreements, which in a majority of cases, failed to clarify in clear terms what users are signing up for, with the result being that they inadvertently give their consent to social media platforms for their personal data use. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who had appeared before a US Senate Committee in April, was questioned about the "terms and conditions", with some senators observing that people had no idea what they were signing up for.

Facebook collects information and content provided by the users and also about the people, pages, accounts, hashtags and groups that a user is connected to. The social media platform also collects contact information that users choose to upload, sync or import from a device, such as an address book or call log or SMS log history.

Following the controversy, the Computer Emergency Response Team of India (CERT-In) had issued an advisory on safeguarding personally identifiable information on social networking sites. It had said the users should not share official data or personal secrets on social media messaging platforms and never share details like voter preferences, PIN, passwords, credit card details, banking details, passport details, Aadhaar card details, and other information meant for personal safety and security.

The government had told the Parliament in March this year that sections 43A and 72A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, provides for privacy and security of data in digital form. "Section 43A provides for compensation to be paid to the victim in case of unauthorised access of information and leakage of sensitive personal information respectively. It mandates 'body corporates' to implement 'reasonable security practices' for protecting 'sensitive personal information' of individuals. Section 72A provides for punishment for disclosure of information in breach of the lawful contract. Further, Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules 2011 notified under Section 79 of the IT Act, 2000, requires that intermediaries shall observe due diligence while discharging their duties and shall publish the rules and regulations, privacy policy and user agreement for access-or usage of its computer resource by any person," the government had said.

The government had earlier sent a notice to Cambridge Analytica seeking its response on whether it was engaged in any assignment to utilise data of Indians, and how it came to be in possession of such data. The ministry of electronics and information technology, in a press statement on 23 March, 2018, had said there were imputations that such data could also be used to influence the behavior of individuals.

"While the government is cognisant of the positive role played by social media in promoting awareness and acting as a tool for social cohesion and empowerment, breach of privacy cannot be tolerated," the Ministry had said.

However, on 2 May, 2018, Cambridge Analytica announced the closure of its operation through a press statement: "SCL Elections Ltd, as well as certain of its and Cambridge Analytica LLC's UK affiliates (collectively the 'company' or 'Cambridge Analytica') filed applications to commence insolvency proceedings in the UK. The company is immediately ceasing all operations and the boards have applied to appoint insolvency practitioners Crowe Clark Whitehill LLP to act as the independent administrator for Cambridge Analytica. Over the past several months, Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of numerous unfounded accusations and, despite the company's efforts to correct the record, has been vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas."

In India, the home ministry has launched a focused programme on capacity building to handle various types of crimes, including data theft, hacking, financial frauds and online stalking. The police officers are being trained to handle social platforms related to crime investigation to understand the usage, privacy and security on social networking sites.


Updated Date: May 11, 2018 09:49 AM

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