Our social media activities speak more about us than we’d like, hence it becomes imperative on the part of the social platforms that we use in our daily routine to maintain a secure and untraceable database so as to ensure our privacy. Being the largest and most widely used social media platform globally, the pressure to ensure the privacy of its users’ data on Facebook, is much more than any of its subsidiaries or competitors. However, the recent revelations of Cambridge Analytica, a UK based political consulting firm brought into light the massive breach of user privacy and data by the social mega-giant, claiming that it had been using Facebook data over the years to track user (and potential voter) information based on their online activities.
SCL, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company claimed that they were hired by The Republican Presidential Campaign (Donald Trump’s Campaign) to provide the political party with insights into how users of a specific geographical location where reacting, engaging and interacting with both the party’s campaign and the one opposite to it. While Facebook released a statement saying that what Cambridge Analytica did was not a breach of privacy, as at regular intervals the social media platform gave permissions to access use data to several organisations for academic purposes, considering that CA’s (Cambridge Analytica’s) intentions were largely driven by political agendas and campaigns it won’t be wrong to say that this indeed was a clear violation of the privacy of over 50 million daily active users of Facebook.
Following a series of questions and repeated interrogations about CA and SCL’s involvement in other countries apart from The United States, British whistleblower Christopher Wylie released material on what he referred to as “SCL’s past projects in India”. The document released by Wylie revealed that SCL had been present in India since 2011 and had been actively engaging, participating and in a certain sense influencing not only national but also state politics across India. Wylie took to Twitter and claimed the influence and impact of a British organisation (SCL) as “modern-day colonialism”. The document released by Wylie highlighted that SCL holding data from “over 600 districts and 7 lakh villages” and that its “constantly being updated”.
SCL seemed to have influenced elections pan India and has worked with several national political parties. The information released by Wylie also shows them having worked in Uttar Pradesh in 2012, 2011 and 2007, Bihar in 2007, Kerala in 2007, West Bengal in 2007, Assam in 2007 , Jharkhand in 2007, Madhya Pradesh in 2003, Rajasthan in 2003 and also, the Indian national Lok Sabha elections where the firm claims to have helped “several Lok Sabha candidates in assessing information”. SLC claims that the data collected by them not only helped in the behavioural profiling of the voters but also helped political parties to win several swing states. While there is no mention of the Congress or BJP parties directly, they have been mentioned as “strong national political parties”. The data also revealed that in the UP elections of 2012, SCL helped a “major national political party” to assess the ‘caste demographic’ and subsequently help the party “deploy” suitable tactics and moves.
While many may feel that this action may not have immediate or direct consequences in the Indian scenario, it is important to note that in a political landscape that is becoming increasingly divisive and in a time where our political leaders instead of discussing and debating the real problems of poverty and violence, choose to ignore them and rather rely on communal difference as a source of vote banks, it is not only important but also increasingly pressing that political parties do not get their hands over private data which may deepen the already hollow harmony in our nation.
The question whether or not CA obtained this data legally, is still yet to be answered and can be presented with a concrete answer only after a strong investigation. However, the IT Ministry of India has issued a number of questions centring around whether the data of any Indian citizens has been compromised by their actions. Following similar steps by various Governments across the globe and pressure from the users, Facebook has promised that it would begin it’s internal research and being notifying the users whose data had been used by CA. In the meantime one can only hope that Facebook and other social media platforms who cater to a rather large audience, strengthen their privacy laws, allowing minimal or no breach of user data.