Cambridge Analytica: Neither BJP nor Congress emerge smelling of roses but brawl buries data theft concerns

If data is the new oil, political parties around the world are slipping on it. That includes the two biggest 'national' parties in India. None among BJP and Congress emerge out of the Cambridge Analytica scandal smelling of roses. Both have resorted to denial while blaming the other in pious outrage. The spectacle is immature and worrying. Instead of trading charges, both should come clean on their connection with the disgraced data analytics firm.

Political parties are in the business of public opinion. It is natural that they will find big data useful for their purpose — which is to shape public opinion. While it isn't a crime to use the services of companies (who uses data analytical tools) to micro-target political messaging and influence voter behavior, trouble starts when the data is obtained unethically and illegally. Such behavior, if unchecked, may eventually threaten the very fabric of democracy. The danger is more relevant and immediate in India, where laws around privacy and secure handling of big data are just emerging out of stone age.

Representational Image. Reuters

Representational Image. Reuters

The backbone of democracy is consent, which in turn is based on informed choice. The democratic treatise rests on a notion that voters will act as independent actors while giving their considered consent and mould own future. Now, how convenient would it be for parties in a representative democracy if they can manipulate the voters and manufacture this consent?

What firms such as Cambridge Analytica claim to do is to gather big data — by cheating/buying/skimming off information from gargantuan commercial data platforms such as Facebook — and then use analytical tools to break down this information and gain insights over the targets (voters) for their clients (political parties, corporates or whoever is interested). The clients may now proceed to target the demography of their choice through specific messaging. The question has now moved from whether to how effectively this can be done.

Let us be careful here. There are no dearth of skeptics who question the very basis of the idea — that insights provided by big data can be used to change voter behavior or political insights. Cyber security expert and author Arnab Ray argues forcefully that such fears are overstated.

However, in the age of smart algorithm and smarter Artificial Intelligence, the ability to weaponise big data is not the domain of science fiction. Some researchers say that such practices have already begun.

Eitan Hersh, associate professor of political science at Yale University and author of Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters was quoted as saying by Vox that "Campaigns can now do a lot more targeting based on individual-level characteristics or even neighborhood-level characteristics, as opposed to thinking generally about what the typical American or the typical constituent wants to hear… Big data makes it easy for candidates to dismiss their opponents. They now know, with greater and greater precision, how people voted and how they're likely to vote in the future, and their campaigns reflect that."

Instances of Russian interference in US presidential elections and elsewhere through social media platforms also raise the possibility that foreign forces inimical to India's interests could similarly interfere with our elections by manipulating the digital medium. At last count, India has the highest number of Facebook users in the world. Latest available data (13 July, 2017) suggests there are 241 million active users in India, compared to 240 million in the US.  It can't be too difficult for a foreign nation (Pakistan, for instance) to breach this data minefield and target elections in India.

It is precisely this happenstance that has now put Facebook in the dock in the US. Founder Mark Zuckerberg could soon be summoned by a US Congressional committee. On Wednesday, Zuckerberg admitted in an interview with CNN that Facebook failed to cope with the Russian threat in 2016 US Presidential polls and vowed not to let that happen anywhere else, including India.

"I think what's clear is that in 2016, we were not as on top of a number of issues as we should have [been] whether it was Russian interference or fake news… And we have a responsibility to do this, not only for the 2018 midterms in the US, which are going to be a huge deal this year and that's just a huge focus for us but there's a big election in India this year, there's a big election in Brazil, there are big elections around the world, and you can bet that we are really committed to doing everything that we need to make sure that the integrity of those elections on Facebook is secured."

In the backdrop of such developments, it was disconcerting to note the behavior of Indian political parties. On Tuesday, BJP targeted Congress for not being open about using the services of Cambridge Analytica (CA) to spruce up Rahul Gandhi's social media image and electoral campaigns. However, BJP has been defiant about counter-charges from Congress about its own links.

Media reports based on a screenshot from the website of Ovleno Business Intelligence, the Indian affiliate of CA, claimed that "BJP, Congress and JD(U) were its clients, apart from ICICI bank and Airtel". The website has since been taken down.

Such links have ostensibly been corroborated by the LinkedIn Profile page of Himanshu Sharma, one of the directors of OBI, who described among his achievements that he "managed four election campaigns successfully for the ruling party BJP" and "achieved the target of mission 272". But the association with the BJP now stands deleted from Sharma's LinkedIn profile.

While the BJP has a lot of questions to answer, the conduct of Congress is no better. On Wednesday, party president Rahul Gandhi dismissed BJP's charges as fake news and claimed that the government was trying to deflect attention from the murder of 39 Indians by Islamic State in Iraq.

Incidentally, much before BJP had brought Congress' links with Cambridge Analytica to public attention, a number of reports from noted media organisations had indicated that the Grand Old Party is in touch with the data analytics firm.

The Economic Times had reported back in 9 October, 2017, that "Congress is in touch with Big Data firm Cambridge Analytica that helped US President Donald Trump win last year." The article further mentioned: " According to media reports, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix has met several opposition leaders to design electoral strategy for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the next Lok Sabha elections. The company has made a presentation to the Congress in which it detailed the strategy to target voters online."

In a subsequent update to this story done on 22 March, 2018 , The Economic Times has now sourced this story to an article that originally appeared in Navbharat Times last July.

On 12 November, 2017, Abhinandan Mishra of Sunday Guardian reported that "The Congress under (then) party vice-president Rahul Gandhi is in an 'advanced' stage of discussions with Cambridge Analytica (CA), to use the services of this London-headquartered 'data mining and analysis' company, which specialises in helping political parties and individuals win elections by targeted communication and by changing audience preferences." The report also mentioned, quoting sources, that "if things work out…the Congress… would use the expertise of the company during the Assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh that are due in less than a year. However, when it comes to using the expertise of Cambridge Analytica, the larger focus of the party will be the 2019 general elections."

On 19 March, 2018, Moneycontrol reported that "Big data firm Cambridge Analytica in talks with Indian opposition party for 2019 polls." The article did not mention the name of any political party but reported that CA "is in talks with a large Opposition party in India for the upcoming general elections in 2019" and has apparently made a presentation last August, where CA "etched a data-driven strategy to target voters on social media, analysing online user behaviour and 'connecting the dots' across different citizen databases."

It is interesting to note that while Rahul has rejected BJP's allegations as "fake news", Congress did not object to any of these reports from credible organisations, some of which had indicated explicit links between CA and Congress going as far back as last year.

Divya Spandana, Congress's social media and digital communications chief, has clarified that "any news about Congress engaged/engaging with Cambridge Analytica is absolutely false." This is quite a vehement refutation.

However, Congress's social media head was described as "reticent" on the usage of big data analytics in electoral campaigns in an interview done by News18 in October 2017 last year.

According to that interview, "when quizzed on the use of big data analytics, the Congress social media head is reticent. There have been reports of Congress signing up data mining and analytics giant Cambridge Analytica, the company that was closely associated with Donald Trump's presidential bid last year."

It is not clear why Divya was not vehement in her denials about the links between Congress and Cambridge Analytica in that instance.
It is to be also noted that rebel Congress leader Shehzad Poonawalla on Wednesday told ANI that the Congress party was lying about its links with Cambridge Analytica. He posted three tweets in support of his claims.

As this trading of charges continues, it is evident that the larger question is getting buried under the debris of political slugfest. If data is not safe and secure then the user loses control over it. When that happens, the demise of democracy won't take long.

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Updated Date: Mar 22, 2018 19:15:41 IST

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