Ravi Shankar Prasad claims Congress has links to data firm Cambridge Analytica, warns of stern action

The Bharatiya Janata Party has dragged Congress into the controversy stirred by a London-based firm Cambridge Analytica, which is accused of harvesting private data from millions of Facebook profiles to influence and identify voter behaviour.

BJP spokesperson and Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, in a press conference asked Congress president Rahul Gandhi to come clean on the issue as he questioned the party’s association with a "rogue data analysis firm."

"Will Congress party depend upon data manipulation and theft to win votes? Mr. Rahul Gandhi should explain the role of Cambridge Analytica in his social media profile," he asked.

File image of law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. PTI

File image of law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. PTI

Cambridge Analytica is at the eye of a fresh data leak controversy as reports emerged that the firm had access to millions of Facebook users' personal data, which is used to identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behaviour to help US president Donald Trump win elections.

Prasad cited media reports to allege that Congress party had links with Cambridge Analytica.

"My question to Congress party is whether to win elections, Congress will depend on data manipulation and theft of data," he said. "What is the role of Cambridge Analytica in social media profile of Rahul Gandhi," he asked.

Prasad quoted a Economic Times report from October 2017 that revealed that the Congress party had roped in the controversial agency to  run their 2019 and termed it as their 'Brahmastra' against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"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," the report said.

Similar suggestions were made in a Hindustan Times report in an article published two days ago, wherein it claimed that the firm has its eyes set on wooing politicians in South Asia. In fact the report claimed that the firm was in touch with both Congress and the BJP.

"The firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA), and its India partner, Oveleno Business Intelligence (OBI) Private Limited, have spoken to both the Congress and the BJP for a possible collaboration for their 2019 Lok Sabha election campaigns... it has had talks with the Congress and the BJP, with former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is making a bid to get re-elected in 2020, and with the Awami League, the ruling party in Bangladesh, which is seeking re-election in 2019," the Hindustan Times report said.


It is noteworthy here that OBI's CEO is Amitesh Tyagi, son of Janata Dal (United) leader KC Tyagi, who has previously worked with individual candidates in the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017 and with JD(U)-BJP in 2010 to manage booth-level demographic data, the Hindustan Times report said. But the firm denies it is involved in any social media work yet.

However, by calling out Congress first for being in talks with the controversial data analysis firm, the BJP may have scored a political goal.

Prasad not only came down heavily on Congress but as Union IT and Law Minister, he also warned social media platforms like Facebook of 'strong action' if any attempt was made by them to influence the country's electoral process through undesirable means.

"This is not just a question of Congress Party’s association with a rogue data analysis firm but it is a question of free and fair elections in India and democratic values of our country," Prasad said.

He said the government fully supports freedom of press, speech and expression and is for exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt by social media sites, including Facebook, to influence India's electoral process through undesirable means will not be tolerated, he told reporters in Parliament House complex. "If need be, strong action will be taken," he said.

BJP's spokesperson Sambit Patra also asked Congress president Rahul Gandhi to "answer" the questions, accusing Rahul of "outsourcing" the 2019 election campaign.

"Government of the day is not going to take it lightly. Government is of course going to investigate and truth will come to the fore. Rahul Gandhi should come forward and answer the questions which have been put to him", he said.

"The way by which Congress President Rahul Gandhi is trying to relaunch himself for elections in 2019 via Cambridge Analytica is alarming and dangerous for the people of India who are actively using social media", he added.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an independent government body charged with insuring that companies abide by their own privacy policies, is looking at whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree after media reports alleged that it had handed the data of millions of users to a political consultancy.

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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2018 18:25:40 IST

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