digital privacy

Government plans to monitor individual social media users to gauge opinion about official policies

I&B ministry tender for tool to create ‘a 360 degree view’ of users so it can target them with personalised responses raises privacy concerns.

With less than a year left for the general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government hopes to deploy a “social media analytical tool” that will create digital profiles of citizens, ostensibly to gauge their opinions about official policies, according to a bid document issued last month by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The government hopes to use this information to target individuals with personalised campaigns to promote “positive” opinions and to neutralise “negative sentiments” about government schemes.

The tool, according to the specifications of the bid document, should have the capacity to monitor a range of digital platforms: Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and blogs. The tool should also be able to “listen to” email, the document says, though it is not clear how this can be achieved without violating users’ privacy.

The tool is intended to be used by the Social Media Communications Hub that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is planning to establish.

Given that India does not yet have a law to ensure data protection or to define the process of obtaining consent from individuals before using their data, the plan to develop the social media analytical tool has raised privacy concerns.

“If this is not surveillance, nothing is!” said Prasanna S, a Delhi-based lawyer who has worked on data and privacy issues. “Whether the entity reading the messages is human or a machine learning algorithm is immaterial. So long as a medium user knows that his/her messages are being monitored by the government, it is enough to cause a chill and is a violation of his/her freedom of speech.”

He added: “Just because a user posts a message online to the public, it does not automatically mean she loses privacy over that information. It was shared with a particular purpose. Those cannot be further analysed by third parties to profile him/her or correlate with his/her other personal data available elsewhere without his/her consent. It is fairly clear after the privacy judgement by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court in August.”

An executive in the internet surveillance industry who asked to remain unidentified, said it was strange that the ministry had asked for the tool to be able to monitor email. “Right now, email interception is only allowed under the law for security and crime investigations that too with the permission from home ministry,” this person said.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting did not respond to the email queries by about how the social media analytical tool would impact the privacy of individuals and how the data collected through the tool would be used.

Broad scope

The analytical tool the government is hoping to develop will not only have the capability of monitoring digital platforms, it will also be able to understand “overall social media response to a message, tweet or data”.

The tool, which will be able to monitor in all major Indian languages as well as several foreign ones, will use Natural Language Processing to “extract well as the context”. Natural Language Processing is a technology used by computers to understand the sentiment behind human communications.

It will categorise social media conversations and “other references” on the Internet into “positive, negative and neutral as viewed by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting”, the tender document says.

In addition, the tool will be able to create a “conversation archive” of users from their social media. It should be able to “see historic conversation of each user in a reverse chronological manner along with the ability to merge conversations across channels,” the document says.

The tool will then use the data to create “a 360 degree view of the people who are creating buzz across various topics”. It will then target citizens with “personalised responses”.

Extract from the tender document issued on behalf of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on April 25 for the software and services for creating a 'Social Media Communication Hub'
Extract from the tender document issued on behalf of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on April 25 for the software and services for creating a 'Social Media Communication Hub'

The tool would activate the government campaign machinery through alerts and notifications to “strategize recovery for negative publicity”. It will also help in “influencer activation” for “crisis management”, the document says.

It says the Social Media Analytical software should act as the guiding tool for the Information and Broadcast Ministry “to understand the impact of various social media campaigns conducted on various schemes run by the Government of India” to “improve the reach” of such campaigns and “to make a particular topic trending”.

A geographical analysis of trending issues will be carried out “with exact locations on the map”. The team of 20 Social Media Analytics Executive will provide reports on sentiment, reach, trending topics and hashtags to the Ministry. About six reports will be generated every day, the document says. In addition, the ministry will appoint one social media executive in each of India’s 716 districts to keep a track of local news and events and enter this into the system.

Predicting the news

The government also wants the analytical tool to perform a “predictive analysis” of potential headlines and breaking news in various channels and newspapers across the globe such as the New York Times, Economist and Time. The analysis, the document says, could be undertaken by factoring in their “leanings, business deals, investors, their country policies, sentiment of their population, past trends etc.”

The government aims to be able to influence global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news. “How could the public perception be moulded in positive manner for the country, how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses, how can the perception management of India be improved at the world, how could the media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries be predicted and replied/neutralised, how could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India,” is says.

Deadline extended

The government had first invited bids for the project from experienced Indian companies in February for software “designed and developed in India.” However, it floated the tender afresh in April and opened the bidding to foreign companies with a closing bidding date of May 25. On May 23, it extended the closing date for bidding by one more week, up to May 31.

An official in the ministry of Information and Broadcasting said on condition of anonymity that when the government invited bids from Indian companies for the project in February, it did not get enough number of proposals. “The condition of having at least three applicants was not met,” this person said.

This was because Indian companies were not sure if the project would be sustained, said an executive in an internet-based firm in Delhi, who did not wish to be identified. “Most Indian companies have less than half the capacity that the government was asking for,” this person said. “Besides, it was not clear what the government was trying to achieve from the project. To most it looked like a project targetted at elections. Nobody was sure what will happen to it after the elections. Besides there seemed to be technical and legal issues with the project. Nobody wanted to invest in the capacity to meet the requirement.”

Efforts to develop the tool are proceeding even as authorities in other parts of the world are attempting to strenghten data protection laws. On Friday, for instance, the General Data Protection Regulation, a new data protection and privacy regulation for European Union citizens, will go into effect. The debate about data protection has grown louder over the past few months, ever since it was discovered that the UK-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had mined through the social media data of individuals, without their informed consent, to use it for political campaigning.

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