Face off with Facebook: Politics rife over data breach

Mark JukerburgAfter turmoil over Aadhar data breach possibilities, Facebook is under attack from the ruling NDA government which has warned its CEO Mark Zuckerberg of “strong action” if it attempted to interfere with elections in India. On his part, Zuckerberg has now apologised for the “mistake” and has said that Facebook has a “responsibility” to protect its users’ data and if it fails, “we don’t deserve to serve you”.

However, the controversy does not end here because the BJP has accused the opposition Congress of using the services of Cambridge Analytica in elections. It is known that social media, particularly Facebook, has been used extensively during polls.

It is also a fact that social media platforms worked better for the BJP before, during and after the 2014 Parliamentary elections. Significantly, the balance is tilting now with Congress hitting back in the same coin.

Once stolen, electronic data is very easy to transmit, manipulate, interpolate, or interpret for various needs. Did Facebook become an accessory for Cambridge Analytica (CA) to game US Presidential elections and the Brexit referendum? There are allegations that a Cambridge University researcher contracted by CA allegedly lured Facebook users to take a personality quiz app which worked in the background to collect personal data of quiz takers and their friends, including status updates and Facebook ‘likes’. CA allegedly created a database of 50-60 million people including everything known about their personal traits and political persuasions.

The Indians hooked to Facebook number over 20 crore. In fact, India comes at a second slot after USA to use Facebook. This is a scary case of privacy violation. Electioneering targeting specific voter groups and even individuals has existed for some time but it has rarely assumed such underhand and insidious proportions. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called it a “breach of trust” given that mass data collection was restricted to academic use, the company cannot attempt to play victim. Rather, going by revelations from whistleblower Christopher Wylie, Facebook adopted a cavalier attitude.

It did not immediately stop such massive data flows out of company servers. Though Facebook claims to have done course correction, the damage has already been done. A larger investigation is needed and the global footprint of such practices need to be identified. The Union Information Technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has warned Zuckerberg about his powers to summon him to India. The controversy is a wake-up call.

The data of Facebook users can be used to come out with strategies such as ‘behavioural micro-targeting’ and ‘psychographic messaging’. Christopher Wylie, a former CA employee-turned-whistle-blower, set off a storm with revelations of how the company had deployed a ‘psychological warfare’ tool for alt-right media guru Steve Bannon to try to sway the election in Trump’s favour in America. CA chief executive Alexander Nix, who was suspended a few days ago following an undercover report by a British TV broadcaster, said the company has used other dubious methods in projects worldwide — including honey traps to discredit clients’ opponents. The combination of using personal data without consent and tailoring slander campaigns, fake news and propaganda to discover preferences of voters is a potent and corrosive cocktail.

The shocking revelation has brought to light several issues that need to be addressed. The companies have been collecting data and tailoring marketing campaigns using the data during elections accordingly.

Personal data cannot be allowed to be violated in any way. The CA issue is a wake-up call for India; the government is still dragging its feet on framing a comprehensive and robust data protection law. The IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has made it clear that “we fully support freedom of press, speech and expression; we fully support free exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt, covert or overt, by social media, including Facebook, of trying to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will neither be appreciated nor be tolerated. If need be, stringent action will be taken”.