The Big Story: Analyse this
There is no getting away from it now. In his deposition to the British House of Commons, Christopher Wylie, former employee of the data mining firm, Cambridge Analytica, said it had “worked extensively in India” and that he believed “their client was Congress”. Wylie also mentioned that his predecessor had been working in India before he died under mysterious circumstances. Another expert giving evidence to the committee said Wylie’s predecessor had secretly been paid by an Indian billionaire who wanted the Congress to lose. The firm, which harvested the data of millions of Facebook users to sway the outcomes of major political events like the American elections of 2016 and possibly the Brexit referendum, has been active in India as well. Given the regulatory wilderness that the firm would operate in here, there is no telling what breaches of privacy and what kind of manipulations took place.
Needless to say, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has latched on to the fact that Wylie named the Congress and has demanded an apology from the opposition party. It crowns a week of mud slinging where both parties traded allegations that unethical means were used to win elections, especially the general elections of 2014. Question is, why has a formal investigation not been launched, as it has in other countries? Authorities in both Britain and America are probing the leak of personal data from Facebook. So are prosecutors in Brazil. In India, the government remains in Congress-bashing mode.
The answer seems to lie in a culture and an institutional climate where privacy and data protection are not valued. This week also saw a furore over the Narendra Modi smartphone app, which has been accused of “spying” on citizens and of sending users’ data to a third party in America without their consent. This is a government which has argued before the court that privacy was not a fundamental right and that individuals did not have absolute autonomy over their bodies. It took the Supreme Court to uphold privacy as a fundamental right. These debates arose over Aadhaar, the 12-digit unique identity number based on biometric data which the government has tried to make mandatory for a range of services, from getting food rations, to filing income tax returns to getting a phone number and using a bank account. Serious doubts have been raised about the security of the massive Aadhaar data base, and whether data would be farmed out to private players for commercial use. While the government rages about the depredations of Facebook, it does not turn a hair about the potential threats of Aadhaar.
There is a lack of basic institutional safeguards that protect an individual’s autonomy and privacy from encroachment by the state or by private players. And the fault does not lie with the Congress or the BJP alone. The AP Shah committee on data protection submitted its report in October 2012 but the privacy law it proposed was never enacted. The Sri Krishna Committee, set up last year, is expected to submit its report by the end of May. This time, it should translate into a law which adequately values privacy. Meanwhile, the Centre should rise above partisan squabbling, order an investigation on Cambridge Analytica’s operations in India and by come clean on Facebook’s involvement in government projects.
The Big Scroll
Rohan Venkataramakrishnan explains how both Facebook and Aadhaar are both data protection scandals to worry about.
Abhishek Dey reports on how Narendra Modi app shares private data of users with an American firm without consent.
- In the Indian Express, Bhaskar Chakravarti on how Facebook has taken one misstep too many.
- In the Hindu, D Shyam Babu on how Siddaramaiah jeopardises his valid claim for more powers to states by mixing it with electoral politics.
- In the Telegraph, Bhaswati Chakravorti reflects on how India treats women who work and earn.
Anant Zanane reports that before being killed, Bhind journalist Sandeep Sharma had asked for police protection:
Sharma had asked for police protection, saying his life was in danger after conducting a “sting operation” on Sub Divisional Police Officer Indra Veer Singh Bhadouria in 2017.
Sharma had secretly filmed Bhadouria purportedly accepting a bribe of Rs 12,500 to let a truck transport illegally mined sand from the National Chambal Sanctuary. The police officer was transferred out of Bhind after Sharma’s TV news channel, News World, aired the video late in October.
Soon after, Sharma wrote to senior police officials, saying he and his colleague Vikas Purohit, who had helped him conduct the sting, feared for their lives and demanded protection. The letter, stamped by the Bhind superintendent of police’s office on November 3, mentioned that copies of it had been sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.