BJP, Congress trade barbs over use of data analytics firm
Cambridge Analytica has been accused of using personal data of Facebook users Days after data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), a subsidiary of the U.K.-based SCL Group, was suspended by social media company Facebook for not deleting user data obtained from an app developer for the platform, the controversy reached Indian shores with both the BJP and the Congress trading charges of the other having used the firm’s services.
Union Law and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad questioned the links between the firm and the Congress at a press conference on Wednesday.
Ahead of 2019 polls
Citing media reports, he said the Congress engaged the firm for its campaign for the 2019 general election.
Mr. Prasad raised questions about the extent of the party’s engagement with the firm and how far the Congress endorsed CA’s use of “sex, sleaze and fake news to influence elections.”
The Minister was alluding to an investigation of CA by the British broadcaster Channel 4 that revealed its (now suspended) CEO Alexander Nix boasting about underhanded tactics used by the firm to manipulate candidates in elections worldwide.
Minutes after the press conference, the Congress’s digital media chief Divya Spandana issued a statement denying allegations that the party had engaged CA. “News about congress engaged/engaging with Cambridge Analytica is absolutely false,” she tweeted and accused the BJP of trying to detract attention from the way it had handled the deaths of 39 Indians in Iraq four years ago.
The Congress later accused the BJP and its ally Janata Dal (United) of having engaged the services of the firm Ovleno Business Intelligence (an Indian affiliate of SCL) for several State elections and the 2014 general election.
Links with JD(U) MP
“Cambridge Analytica’s linked website shows that in 2010 its services were used by the BJP-JD(U). The firm’s Indian partner Ovleno Business Intelligence is being run by the son of a BJP ally’s MP [former JD(U) MP K.C. Tyagi’s son, Amrish Tyagi]. OBI company’s services were used by [Home Minister] Rajnath Singh in 2009,” All India Congress Committee communications-in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala said, adding that the “BJP’s factory of fake news has produced one more fake product today.”
The Hindu tried to reach Mr. Amrish Tyagi to seek his comments on his company’s engagements with political parties in India, but his phone remained switched off.
CA is a data analytics firm that was launched with the help of Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to U.S. President Donald Trump. Mr. Bannon helped the firm get funding from wealthy donors to the Republican party, the billionaire Robert Mercer and his family in particular.
It’s a subsidiary of SCL, a British firm that specialises in data analytics.
A former employee of CA, Chris Wylie had revealed to British newspaper The Observer recently that the firm had obtained profile information of 50 million Facebook users which was harvested by Alexsandr Kogan, a Cambridge University academic.
Mr Kogan however, denies this, saying he had merely compiled the data using a personality profiling app that was downloaded willingly by users (around 2,70,000 of them). Mr Wylie alleged that the app was used to harvest information of the users’ friends without their consent. The information was used to micro-target voters in the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016, he claimed.
The fallout of these events has resulted in demands for greater scrutiny over Facebook’s privacy practices from U.S. and European lawmakers besides investigations on CA by the UK government. Facebook claims that allegations of a data breach are “completely false.” Mr. Prasad, in his press conference, also issued veiled warning to Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerburg, saying, “Mr Zuckerberg you better know the observation of the IT Minister of India.. if any data theft of Indians is done with the collusion of FB systems, it will not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT Act including summoning to India.”