Several people in Bengaluru have been complaining on social media about getting unsolicited phone calls seeking to know their voting preferences or political inclinations ahead of the May 10 Assembly election in Karnataka, raising concerns about voter privacy.

Such concerns are valid, experts said, because purported telephonic surveys that fail to meet basic surveying standards may hurt voter privacy. Worse, the data collected could potentially be misused. Aggravating these concerns are reports that, following last year’s voter data theft, Karnataka’s electoral rolls were scrubbed of names en masse.

Shadowy surveys

Several people in Bengaluru Scroll spoke with said they have been receiving several calls a day seeking their responses to purported opinion surveys. It was unclear if voters outside Bengaluru have received such calls and at what scale.

Manasi Kumar said she has been receiving such calls since the middle of March. “I was receiving two to three such calls per day until early April,” Kumar told Scroll. “The frequency of these calls has now reduced, but I still receive one every couple of days.”

Kumar said she was asked which political party she supported.

Truecaller, a mobile app that helps identify unlisted callers, showed one of the numbers as belonging to “Basavanagudi Survey Election”, Kumar said. She is registered as a voter in another Assembly constituency in Karnataka’s capital, not Basavanagudi.

Kumar said that the callers, speaking in Kannada, refused to reveal their identities. “When I asked who was conducting the survey, they said they could not divulge that information,” Kumar said. “They also could not explain where they got my number from.”

She added, “This is very weird. I have never heard of something like this.”

Screenshots of the Truecaller interface when some of these calls where recieved.
Screenshots of the Truecaller interface when some of these calls where recieved.

Similarly, Rohini Mohan, a journalist in Bengaluru, said she had received such calls repeatedly. For her, Truecaller described the numbers as “junk”.

Mohan, unlike Kumar, received an automated call seeking to know who she would vote for in the election. She was asked to pick one from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress, the Janata Dal Secular and the Aam Aadmi Party.

The survey was being conducted by News7 Kannada, Mohan said she was told on the call. News7 Kannada is supposedly a news organisation, but it barely has a footprint. It has nearly no social media presence and its website, mentioned on its supposed Facebook and Twitter pages, does not exist.

In response to Scroll’s queries, Karnataka’s Chief Electoral Office said it had received two complaints about the purported phone surveys. It said it had asked the additional director general of police for Bengaluru to take necessary action in the matter.

Valid concerns

The calls have caused apprehension about the possible misuse of the data that is being collected. “To me, this is not the same as doing street surveys,” Mohan tweeted. “I did not consent to be called on phone, my digital data will be automatically connected to many other details like age, gender, religion, income.”

Some people on social media suggested that the data could eventually be used to remove from the electoral rolls voters who are deemed unfavourable by the beneficiary entity based on their voting preference.

Such concerns may not be unfounded.

On April 17, the Election Commission confirmed a report published in November by The News Minute and the Kannada digital news platform Pratidhvani about voter data theft in Bengaluru. Municipal corporation officials had allegedly provided illegal and undue favours to a private trust called Chilume and allowed it to covertly collect voter data in the city on the pretext of spreading voter awareness. The trust’s sub-contracted field agents had reportedly posed as block election officials.

The Election Commission’s investigation found that the data collected by Chilume was uploaded to a private mobile app and stored on foreign servers, possibly in China or Eastern Europe, in violation of election rules. The data included who the respondent usually voted for and their political inclination.

The commission said the trust was collecting the data with the aim of selling it to political parties. The News Minute had reported that Nandiesha Reddy, a former BJP legislator and the party’s candidate for Bengaluru’s KR Puram Assembly constituency in the 2018 election, had previously paid Rs 17.5 lakh to Chilume. The commission also alluded to the trust’s possible links to BJP minister CN Ashwath Narayan.

Reddy and Narayan have rejected the accusations, with the former claiming that he had paid Chilume only for a “voter verification survey”.

While the commission said that electoral rolls had not been altered in this case, voter deletion has been a major point of controversy in Karnataka in recent months. In November, the Congress alleged that many of the 27 lakh voters deleted from the electoral rolls had been removed without submission of Form 7, which is mandatory. In February this year, over 9,000 residents of Shivajinagar, a constituency held by the Congress since 2008, received notices from the Election Commission to prove that they lived in the area to avoid removal from the electoral rolls. The notices had been issued a month after the final voter list for the election was published, based on a complaint by BJP activists claiming that 26,000 fake voters had either shifted out of the constituency or died. It is unclear how they had accessed the supposed list. Shivajinagar, incidentally, was one of the constituencies Chilume allegedly collected voter data from.

Rizwan Arshad, the Congress legislator from Shivajinagar, alleged in March that most of the voters who had received the deletion notices were Christians, Dalits and Muslims, and that electoral officers had deleted voter names based on Chilume’s data.

Arshad went to the High Court against the deletion of names from voter lists, but his plea was dismissed. More than 7,000 voters are now set to be deleted from his constituency’s electoral rolls.

‘Breach of privacy’

In view of all this, experts in conducting surveys and election processes said that concerns about the purported telephonic opinion polls may be justified.

Sandeep Shastri, the national coordinator of Lokniti, a network of scholars conducting and researching election surveys, said that there is no restriction on conducting online surveys even when the Model Code of Conduct is in place so long as their results are not announced before the voting concludes.

However, by not anonymising the respondents, these telephonic surveys do not conform to the required surveying standards, Shastri added. “Online surveys are seen as a convenient method by many,” he said. “However, basic principles need to be followed while conducting such opinion surveys.” The respondent must give their consent and it must be an informed consent for their identity and response to be recorded, he pointed out.

Shastri added, “The respondent must be provided with all details such as who is conducting the survey, who is funding it and what is the purpose of the study.”

Polling officials in Bengaluru. Credit: PTI
Polling officials in Bengaluru. Credit: PTI

Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which works on electoral reform and voter empowerment, asked, “Are the surveyors revealing their identity and is it authentic? I would be very surprised if it is a news organisation.”

More importantly, Shastri suggested that such surveys may have negative implications. “They could be linked to a political party, which is trying to gauge the support it has,” he told Scroll. “Or, there is a distinct possibility of voter profiling based on their responses. A party would know who supports them and who doesn’t.”

If so, Shastri said, the purported surveys are a violation of the right to privacy.

Chhokar agreed. “This whole thing is a mess,” he said. “There are no data protection laws. People are being made to use their Aadhaar cards by force. Many people have linked their Aadhaar cards to their voter IDs. So, our personal data is not secure.”

In February, the Election Commission had disclosed in a Right to Information response sought by The Hindu that over 60% of India’s 94.5 crore voters had linked their Aadhaar numbers to their voter IDs. That figure is nearly 71% in Karnataka.

Chhokar added that the possibility of the purported telephonic surveys in Bengaluru being an attempt to remove voters from the electoral rolls could not be ruled out. “This seems far-fetched, but nothing is impossible.”

This story was updated on April 30 to include the response of Karnataka’s chief electoral officer.