After the Election Commission of India announced that it will continue its partnership with Facebook for the upcoming Karnataka Assembly Polls, calling the recent fiasco a mere “aberration”, the Indian government has sent the social media giant a letter, seeking details of how the breach was perpetrated by British firm Cambridge Analytica.
Whether such data have ever been used to manipulate the electoral process in India, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) has sought to know.
Facebook has until April 7 to respond to MeitY’s letter. Commenting on the development, a spokesperson for the company told ET, “As (CEO) Mark Zuckerberg has said, we are working hard to tackle past abuse and prevent future abuse. We appreciate the opportunity to answer questions the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has raised, as we continue our review of the situation.”
Further, in the notice, the government has reportedly asked Facebook to share details of its privacy protection system, especially in cases where a third-party entity has misused user data as well as the specific steps the social media platform is planning to take to ensure that such activities do not recur.
“Facebook today has its largest footprint in India in terms of its user base and, therefore, what proactive measures are being taken to ensure the safety, security and privacy of such large user data and to prevent its misuse by any third party,” MeitY reportedly asked in the letter.
The development comes just days after the Indian government sent Cambridge Analytics a notice on the breach, seeking their response latest by March 31, 2018.
At the time, MeitY had said in a statement, “The government is deeply concerned about such developments and is committed to ensuring the protection of the fundamental right of privacy and safety and security of data for every citizen of India. There have also been imputations that such data could also have been used to influence the behaviour of individuals.”
So, What Happened In The Aftermath Of The Controversy?
In the aftermath of reports claiming Cambridge Analytica harvested the profiles of up to 50 Mn Facebook users without their approval during the last US elections, Facebook Chief Mark Zuckerberg assured that it is taking a series of measures to ensure that the social platform will not be misused by any agency or anyone to influence election results, be it India or other countries.
While Facebook had already accepted and apologised for the platform’s misuse during the US presidential election 2016, a recent report by The Guardian, found that Cambridge Analytica relied on dirty tricks to swing elections which included an unauthorised access to the tens of millions of Facebook users’ data.
Posting a timeline of how Cambridge Analytica benefitted from the Facebook users’ data that were, in 2013, shared with Cambridge researcher Aleksandr Kogan as anonymised data which tallied 57 Bn friendships around the world, Zuckerberg averred that it was Kogan who later shared his apps with Cambridge Analytica, enabling them access to the Facebook users’ data.
Meanwhile, the Board of Cambridge Analytica recently suspended CEO Alexander Nix with immediate effect, pending a full, independent investigation.
In response to the controversy, the acting CEO Alexander Tayler expressed his regret over the entire episode, stating, “I am sorry that in 2014 SCL Elections (an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica) licensed Facebook data and derivatives from a research company (GSR) that had not received consent from most respondents. The company believed that the data had been obtained in line with Facebook’s terms of service and data protection laws.”
Is India At A Risk Of A Similar Breach?
Interestingly, in September 2017, reports surfaced that a major Indian opposition party was looking to join hands with Cambridge Analytica for reaching a larger section of the country’s voting population in the upcoming 2019 general elections.
According to the website of the company’s Indian arm Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), which has now been suspended by the Indian government, Cambridge Analytica had run a research and communication campaign and carried out an in-depth electorate analysis for BJP-led NDA in the Bihar assembly elections, way back in 2010.
The OBI, in fact, claimed to have influenced four election campaigns of the BJP in various states including Haryana and Maharashtra. The OBI Director, in his LinkedIn profile, also claimed to have helped the BJP during the general elections of 2014 to achieve the target of 272+ by managing call centre management project, thereby managing the profile of each and every volunteer as well as the constituency-wise database.
The Indian arm OBI led by Amrish Tyagi in India, son of a senior political leader of JDU, an NDA alliance, calls BJP, Congress, JDU and the ICICI bank among its clients. Reportedly, the Congress had reached out to Cambridge Analytica for its reputation building solutions.
In the aftermath of the recent blowout, privacy advocates in India raised concerns that a similar breach could happen here to target voter opinion. At the same time, Union Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad issued a warning against any abuse of social media in elections in India.
India’s general elections are due in 2019. There are already several states electing new assemblies this year. Prasad told reporters at the time, “Abuse of social media including Facebook cannot be allowed to impact the fairness of elections.”
On its part, in light of the recent data breaches and concerns regarding data security on Facebook, the Election Commission gave assurance that care will be taken to avoid any kind of data breach. “Social media is a reality and the EC will take all precautions at its command, to prevent episodes which adversely affect Indian elections,” OP Rawat, India’s Chief Election Commissioner proclaimed.
Facebook Rolls Out New Security Settings
Amidst all this, Facebook has announced that it will make it easier for users to alter their privacy settings and even delete data they might have unknowingly shared with the social media platform.
Post the rollout, Facebook users will be able to change their privacy and security settings from a single page, rather than having to go to multiple pages.
Speaking on the development, Erin Egan, Vice President and Chief Privacy Officer, Policy said in a statement, “The last week showed how much more work we need to do to enforce our policies, and to help people understand how Facebook works and the choices they have over their data.”
“So in addition to Mark’s announcements last week – cracking down on abuse of the Facebook platform, strengthening our policies, and making it easier for people to revoke apps’ ability to use your data – we’re taking additional steps in the coming weeks to put people in more control over their privacy. Most of these updates have been in the works for some time, but the events of the past several days underscore their importance,” Egan added.
However, Facebook users will still not be able to delete data that they shared, in the past, with third-party apps on the platform.
As digital transactions and Internet penetration in the country increases, it is but inevitable that more such issues around privacy and security of information will spring up. Whether the government takes heed of the concerns that have come to light as a result of the recent Facebook data breach, remains to be seen.