Cambridge Analytica row: Beware of outsiders influencing Indian elections

Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have been accusing each of using the services of Cambridge Analytica in elections, and a full-blown war of words has erupted. Cambridge Analytica, a subsidiary of the UK-based SCL Group, has been accused of illegally harvesting personal data of Facebook users.

But in the political face-off, the Congress appears to be more on the defensive since material unearthed by the media here has been embarrassing to it. It is true that the firm claims on its website to have the BJP as one of its clients, but the BJP has categorically rejected it and challenged its opponents to prove the claim.

While the BJP says the Congress had engaged the services of the controversial firm for the coming 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress has alleged that the BJP and its associates such as the Janata Dal (United) had engaged CA in 2010. That CA had done something wrong is more or less established.

Facebook has already admitted that something had gone wrong and has vowed to check it, following a stern warning from Union Minister for Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad that Facebook could face action in India if it is found to be interfering in elections here. Allegations and counter-allegations apart, what is most worrisome is the unethical conduct of organisations that have access to personal data of millions of users who have reposed trust in them.

 The scandal would perhaps have remained hidden from the public had not the media got a handle on it. A UK-based newspaper carried a report of a former employee of the firm who boasted of how CA accessed material through a personality profiling app which had been downloaded by lakhs of Facebook users. Besides, the firm also took data from nearly 50 million users through ‘Facebook friends’.

 Then, Channel 4 aired a programme in which the company’s suspended chief executive explained some of the dubious methods used in harvesting data and poll strategies, which included using women as bait. SCL and its associates have been involved in election campaigns across the world, and it is indeed worrisome if political parties in India have in some ways used the services of such organisations. Cambridge Analytica is now under investigation by authorities in the United Kingdom and the US — over the Brexit issue in the former and the Russian links to the presidential campaign in the latter. It is possible that Indian political parties, whether they have used or had planned to use the services, had not the knowledge of the wrongdoings. But now that they have, they must keep away.