The controversy over the British-based data mining company, Cambridge Analytica, which faces allegations of using the personal data of millions of Facebook followers to influence the U.S. election, is reverberating in India, which is due to hold national elections next year.
The website of the Indian affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), has been taken down amid a dispute between the country’s two major political parties over using its services.
Both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition Congress Party have denied doing so. However Ovleno's site had listed the BJP, the Congress and a regional party known as the Janata Dal (United) among its clients.
India’s Information Technology Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, last week warned of tough action against social media giants if the data of Indians was misused.
He said India supports freedom of speech, expression and exchange of ideas on social media, “but any attempt, covert or overt, by the social media, including Facebook, of trying to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will neither be appreciated nor be tolerated.”
He said that in the wake of recent data theft from Facebook, the stern warning should be heard “across the Atlantic, far away in California.”
Minister Prasad asked Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, to "explain" the role of Cambridge Analytica in his social media outreach and whether the party had engaged in data trade with the firm.
Congress Party spokesman Randeep Sujrewala called the accusation a “fake agenda and a white lie.” He said it was the BJP that had used the company’s services.
Gandhi is expected to be the main opponent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019. Although Modi’s BJP won a sweeping victory in 2014, many analysts expect next year’s elections to be a much tighter race.
Domestic media reports have said that Cambridge Analytica and its India partner have been in talks with both the Congress and the BJP for a possible collaboration for their 2019 Lok Sabha election campaigns.
On its website, the Indian affiliate of Cambridge Analytica had said it offered services such as "political campaign management," which includes social media strategy, election campaign management and mobile media management.
Internet experts say India is extremely vulnerable to the misuse of personal data during elections.
“It's become a source of micro-targeting. At scale when you can dissect this data and customize messages to individual people to prey on their fears, that kind of campaign is always possible,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of digital news portal MediaNama.
“The problem is not with one entity [such as Cambridge Analytica] but a system which allows it," Pahwa said, pointing out that there is too much data floating around.
In an interview with CNN, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said Facebook was committed to stopping interference in the U.S. midterm election in November and elections in India and Brazil.