Recently the UK based company, Cambridge Analytica has been in the news for illegally harvesting user data from Facebook and enabling the use of this stolen data to influence the US Presidential election in 2016 in favour of Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica has also been linked to several other elections including the Brexit referendum that led to Britain leaving the EU.
From an Indian context, it has been alleged that Cambridge Analytica’s Indian affiliate had been working with the Congress party for India’s last general elections in 2014. Simultaneously though, they seem to have worked to undermine the Congress on the instructions of an unnamed NRI businessman who wanted to get the BJP to win. And It is worthwhile to note that both the Congress and the BJP have denied having to do anything with the shadowy company.
While Cambridge Analytica’s effect on the 2014 elections may be arguable, it now appears that there are a number of indegenious companies right here in India that are offering to do what Cambridge Analytica has allegedly done. For the right price, shadowy “consultancies” are offering to target Indian citizens on behalf of political candidates or parties using data procured by means that may be skirting on either side of the legal boundary.
India Today Exposes Illegal Harvest Of Our Data
A recent undercover investigation by India Today has revealed that information that we hand over so nonchalantly to, say the local outlet of a retail chain, an e-commerce app or even financial/telecom service providers, may be procured by a third party. This data could be weaponized to run a targeted marketing campaign for a politician or a party to enable them to gain advantage and win elections.
As part of their expose, India Today was able to convince the owner of one such company, to divulge that his data had been procured from corrupt telecom company employees. Company staff had also gone door to door claiming to be NGO volunteers, to gather voter info from residents. The owner was convinced to share multiple spreadsheets containing information of residents belonging to a assembly constituency in Bengaluru, incl. “names, addresses, PAN, Aadhaar, mobile, SIM and even economic details”. And the owner boasted that he would be able to target Whatsapp users using data harvested from every cell tower and for a price of 1.2 Crore, would be able to deliver a 50% increase in vote share.
Other Indian companies in this ecosystem, like Mumbai’s Krono Digital marketing company (also part of India Today’s expose) seem to be data re-sellers. These companies buy data (for e.g. Facebook information) in bulk from sellers then resell it to political parties. The parties then employ companies to target voters using them. So it is very possibly that all the leaking Aadhaar data is probably being sold to 3rd parties who would then use it to influence our voting preferences.
The Consumers of Harvested Data
Then there are startups that help manage and run election campaigns, using digital tools and technologies. One can guess that these are the consumers of the data generated/procured from companies like Krono Digital. These companies use the data procured to run highly targeted campaigns to keep their political candidate of choice in your mind. These typically include direct to home mailers, email messages, unsolicited phone calls and strategically placed content on FB and other social media.
And now add Aadhaar to the mix. The data that that was offered to India Today, was claimed to have been procured from telecom officials. It included citizens’ Aadhaar information in addition to address, phone number etc. So with Aadhaar leaks being reported almost on a weekly basis, it is not outside of the realm of possibility that your information may show up on multiple individual databases that have been seeded with your Aadhaar.
Since it appears that companies can harvest information from cell phone towers and since some of the leaked data have included religion and caste, it may be easily possible not just to identify your religion, your political affliation, but also where you might be at any given point of time. Which also means that by having a large enough data set, it might be far too easy to run a campaign based not just on voter interests, but also the voter’s location during that time of the day. And with the right mix of geographical, and financial data in addition to knowing an individual’s political views, it is possible to build a profile of a voter. In fact, it is only a matter of time before we find that a company that has access to the Aaadhar information pivots to offer Aadhaar based election services for political parties. In fact, this idea seems to have already occurred to the Aadhaar ecosystem.
So What Next?
While some companies working in this space may not be wary about courting the press, the rest of the ecosystem, including the political parties, are playing it coy about their ways. The political parties are both seemingly united in the opinion that companies like buy and sell customer data and use them for targeted election campaigns, should not be allowed to function. However they are quick to allege that it is only their opponents that are resorting to these malicious methods and undermining our democracy.
While Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have become convenient targets for our political parties, it seems an entire ecosystem comprising of Cambridge Analytica clones and their downstream consumers are out there exploiting in the glaring holes in the legal fabric. And it is the political parties that are profiting.
To top it all, Aadhaar data is leaking left right and center across India and the UIDAI has buried its head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. In the absence of a robust data protection and cyber privacy laws, every Indian political party is trying to gain an advantage by weaponizing data by hook or crook. So the fear that our election process is being tampered with, is all too real and therefore our democracy is at risk.