Democracy in the age of data power

By Amit Kapoor “Data is the new oil” has been a clichéd maxim of the internet age. But the events that unfolded last week have underlined the extent of complexities that can be created in society depending on the nature of its usage. A year-long investigation by multiple media outlets in the US and Britain revealed that a consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, accessed data of at least 50 million social media users without their proper consent. They then used these data points to psychologically profile people and individually target them with politically-motivated content to manipulate the 2016 US presidential elections. A similar approach was used to influence electoral outcomes all around the world, possibly even in India. Even though the process of manipulating the political narrative during elections is not something new, there is something sinister about for-profit organisations and foreign agents using data technologies to disrupt democratic norms. If electoral outcomes come to be defined by exploiting deep-rooted psychological fears of voters based on data analytics instead of developmental issues that drive progress and prosperity, social cohesion will fall under immediate threat, proving pernicious to the very fabric of democracy. The political vision of governments and politicians need to be steered by people instead of mathematical algorithms. It must be highlighted that social media and the vast explosion of data due to it are not the problems per se. However, when societies are finding themselves being increasingly run by data, a defined set of ethical norms need to be formulated to guide its use. The issue is of the utmost importance for India, as it has a significant online presence that is vulnerable to privacy violations. It has the highest number of Facebook users and the second-highest number of Twitter users in the world — with a combined reach of almost 300 million. A committee of experts under Justice B.N. Srikrishna has already been set up to deliberate upon a data protection framework for India. It is working on drafting a data protection bill and has deliberated on a number of pertinent issues like what constitutes “personal data”, the specifications of consent and establishment of a data protection authority. A white paper has also been published by the authority, detailing a lengthy discourse on these very issues. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has also listed “Citizens’ data security and privacy” as a subject of study. However, not much seems to have been done on the topic. Recent events might hopefully set the ball rolling on that front and inspire a multi-partisan report on the matter. Once the processes of setting up a robust framework of regulatory policy and statutory law to govern matters of data privacy are complete, there will be a requirement to establish cultural expectations that incorporate ethical standards right when the data technologies are being built. The application of regulatory mechanisms after individuals have been profiled is akin to closing the stable doors after the horses have bolted. The race to become the next-big-thing in technology has placed ethics on the backseat and, hence, it is often the case that investigations are conducted, and apologies are demanded, only after the damage has been done. The environment of “develop first, question later” will have to change. The issue of data and privacy regulations will become even more important as technological companies gain greater market share in provision of financial services instead of traditional banks. When you instantly transfer money to friends and family over apps like WhatsApp to avoid the hassle of asking around for bank account numbers, the company gains direct access to your transactions. The power of that data will lie with the entity which posses it. Interestingly, retail banks will begin to lose out on this essential oil as it will be unable to identify customer interactions once it shifts to these new age non-banks. The use of data mining as a strategic tool, put in the right hands, can be a powerful tool to understand societal preferences and address consumer needs. However, no good comes with a complementing bad and our democratic societies need to be wary of the latter by building robust security mechanisms that ensure privacy and consent. At times, even that might not be enough. Consumers willingly hand over a lot of personal information for the convenience of services without knowledge of the consequences of their actions and the eventual use of the data. Therefore, a final action that needs to be undertaken in the world of data is to build user-awareness. There is simply no substitute to a well-informed consumer base. (IANS)]]>

Cong-BJP slugfest over Facebook data mining

Here are screenshots of LinkedIn page of Director of Cambridge Analytica’s Indian arm, saying “managed 4 elections successfully for BJP”, “helped achieve mission 272.” @BJP4India: response please?

— Sreenivasan Jain (@SreenivasanJain) March 21, 2018 Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala termed Prasad as a “minister of lies”, and asked the BJP if “Cambridge Analytica was involved in stealing data, then why did it take its services” and “whether an FIR would be registered against CA and OBI”. He said that Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani “follows” Cambridge Analtytics on Twitter and BJP’s former Information Technology head, who now runs Indian government’s biggest portal (, Arvind Gupta had termed CA a “pwerful tool”. Rahul Gandhi accused the Modi government of seeking to divert attention from its past “lies” about 39 Indians killed in Iraq by inventing story of data theft on Congress.
BJP More Familiar With Fake Websites, Says Singhvi

“Problem: 39 Indians dead; Government on the mat, caught lying. Solution: Invent story on Congress and data theft. Result: Media networks bite bait; 39 Indians vanish from radar. Problem solved,” Gandhi said in a tweet. CA’s India partner Oveleno Business Intelligence (OBI) lists the BJP, the Congress and the JD-U as its clients. The India partner is Amrish Tyagi, son of senior JD-U leader K.C. Tyagi. K.C. Tyagi said on Thursday that the company had only “professional links” with the CA and that the government could investigate these links. Prasad questioned the “silence” of Congress President for more than five months over media reports that claimed his party had roped in CA as ‘Brahmastra (ultimate weapon)’ to counter Prime Minister Narendra Narendra Modi in 2019. “The report in this regard was first published on October 9, 2017 and the party maintained silence until I raised the issue on Wednesday. They denied the allegations when they found themselves in trouble after the issue was brought to the fore,” Prasad said at a press conference. “The Congress cannot run away from this fact. If the Congress maintains a conspicuous silence on such an important news of the involvement of a dubious social media company and does not counter it, then I am sorry. They don’t have any right to run the country,” he said. Prasad also claimed that that the Congress took the services of CA in Gujarat Assembly polls. “They used CA in Gujarat and it was clear from the Congress’s pattern of contesting the election,” he said. He refuted Gandhi’s allegation that by raking up CA issue, Modi government was trying to divert public attention from its “lie about the fate of 39 Indians killed in Iraq”. “We expect that Rahul Gandhi would not indulge in politics over deaths. He should respond to the allegations which are of serious nature,” he said. He alleged that the firm had been found involved in data manipulation and warned that any attempt to misuse social media to influence India’s electoral process would not be tolerated. Prasad said the analytics firm was accused of using bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians and stealing data from Facebook. Surjewala said the BJP government has “become a manufacturer of fake news and an epitome of post-truth”. “The business alliance between BJP-JD-U and Cambridge Analytics has now been exposed,” he said, adding that “new fake agenda” is being used to stop the proceedings in Parliament” and Prasad should be named a “lie minister” instead of law minister. “BJP and Modi should repond. Didn’t they take the services of OBI and CA for Mission 272+? This company was used. Didn’t you know they were involved in stealing data?” Surjewala asked. “Didn’t BJP use the services of CA’s Indian arm OBI during its election campaign in four states–Jharkhand, Haryana, Maharashta and Delhi.” The party also asked if it was true that in 2010, during Bihar elections, BJP and JD-U used the services of CA and OBI. The party reiterated that it neither had any connection with Cambridge Analytica nor took its services. Tyagi said JD-U has no links with his s’n Amrish Tyagi’s firm or with Cambrid”e Analytic’. “Neither CA’s directors have ever met (JD-U President) Nitish Kumar nor Nitish Kumar ever m”t CA’s bosses,” Tyagi said. Tyagi, however, admitted that Amrish was ‘verseeing JD-U’s social media campaign during the last Bihar assembly elections. (IANS)]]>