Miniature Facebook banners are seen on snacks prepared for the visit by Facebook's Chief Operating Officer in Paris, France, January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer - RTSWFUM
As it becomes increasingly clear that data is reshaping not just personalities but also politics around the world, India could learn a few lessons from the misuse of electoral data as it heads towards the general elections next year.
The role of controversial data analytics company Cambridge Analytica in influencing American Presidential elections by harvesting over 50 million Facebook accounts came to light over the weekend.
After a detailed investigation, The New York Times and The Observer reported how the international data mining and analysis company that famously helped US President Donald Trump win the elections, “paid to acquire the personal information through an outside researcher who, Facebook says, claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes”.
India is no stranger to using data analytics to target voters that may be undecided about their preference.
In 2013, a year before the last general elections, this Indian Express piece detailed how the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was convinced that “IT tools could be leveraged to identify the nearest BJP supporter to reach out to an undecided voter — thus giving the party a large pool of people who may not necessarily be party workers to woo fence-sitters.”
In October last year, Moneycontrol reported that Cambridge Analytica was in talks with a large opposition party in India for the upcoming general elections.
“Elections are clearly becoming more complicated with involvement of technology. Social media played a role in the 2014 elections and it’s bound to do more. It can be used in both positive and negative ways. Transparency in practices is where we need to start,” said Mishi Choudhary, managing partner, Mishi Choudhary Associates.
Firms like Cambridge Analytica buy or obtain data from various sources, take this vast amount of unconnected data, match it with voter profiles and databases, identify the voting preferences of every single voter within an area, and target those who can be “turned” into a successful vote for their client.
The data could be as granular as people's spending habits, whether they are introverts or extroverts, whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, their caste, their religion, their illicit relationships and their political ideology and which party they are most likely to vote for.
Experts also point out the lack of adequate and clear data protection laws in India as being a deterrent to framing any kind of rules for political parties’ use of personal user data.
As per Virag Gupta, cyber law expert and Supreme Court advocate, India has a vast digital economy but has not yet framed a foundational law defining data rights and punishment for violation of privacy.
Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica, a whistleblower who detailed the data analytics firm’s working method, and an academic who helped them, from its platform, after the data leak was reported.
Facebook has also contested that this is a data breach because the data collected by the academic “requested and gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent”.
“Facebook's argument suggests that contractual safeguards are insufficient and place citizens, and democracies, at risk. India's data protection law process should take this into account and build safeguards to cope with this third party misuse problem,” said Chinmayi Arun, executive director, Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi.
Gupta further said that a concept of notional value of personal data is a need of the hour. “The companies like Facebook are custodians of users data, much like bank lockers that store our money. Another analogy is that data with such companies is like an empty house on which tax may be levied on the notional value of each transaction or data sharing. The companies, who use our data to make money from advertisers, should share profits with the users who are generating data,” he added.
Besides, even before well defined data protection laws are put in place, political parties should also be mandated to disclose their relationships with data aggregators and data analytics firms.
“All parties must disclose their use, relationships with companies such add Cambridge Analytica, if any or similar data analytics firms. Any leaks of user information by all social media companies must necessarily be made public,” said SFLC’s Choudhary.