Cambridge Analytica: Suspended by Facebook, data firm reportedly in talks with Indian political parties for 2019 elections

Cambridge Analytica has been suspended by Facebook for allegedly stealing user information without prior consent for building a tool to predict their preference in 2016 US presidential elections.

  • Published: March 19, 2018 10:06 AM IST

Facebook recently suspended a data analytics firm called Cambridge Analytica for harvesting users’ personal data without consent for allegedly influencing the 2016 US presidential elections. The firm stole users’ data to build a tool to predict a users’ preferable candidate of choice during the elections. After its alleged role in possibly manipulating the US elections, the firm, which is said to be linked to Donald Trump, is now eyeing the 2019 elections in India, along with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Cambridge Analytica (CA) and its India partner, Oveleno Business Intelligence (OBI) Private Limited have reportedly spoken to both the Congress and the BJP for a possible collaboration for their upcoming Lok Sabha election campaigns. In a report on the Hindustan Times, OBI CEO Amrish Tyagi is quoted as saying that the recent allegations will not deter the firm and its India partner from continuing their collaboration till CA is found to “violate Indian law”.

The company reportedly has had talks with two of the most significant Indian political parties, with former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is making a bid to get re-elected in 2020, and with the Awami League, the ruling party in Bangladesh, which is seeking re-election in 2019. According to the people familiar with the firm, “Nothing is confirmed yet. These are all preliminary talks.”

Tyagi is quoted as saying, “We are in touch with Cambridge Analytica on the controversy. Their officials have denied the allegations and are exploring legal options. Nothing has been established yet,” adding, “We are partners. If something is established to be in violation of Indian law, then we will of course reconsider it.”

Cambridge Analytica faced the axe owing to reports by The Guardian and The New York Times which claimed that the firm was behind influencing the US elections with the use of Facebook data of over 50 million users without their permission. However, the firm has completely denied the allegations saying its data protection policies complied with the US, international, EU and national regulations.

The story behind the allegations goes like this. A whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, revealed the information about the data mining. Wylie worked with University of Cambridge psychology professor Dr Aleksandr Kogan to fetch the data for an app called “thisisyourdigitallife”. The app featured a personality test quiz where users were asked to provide their details, and the Cambridge Analytica paid people to take it. The idea behind the app was purely for research purposes.

The app was downloaded by up to 270,000 people and allowed the firm access to details including their city of residence, content liked, and so on. However, the app also collected data of the Facebook friends of the one taking the personality test. Facebook said that while the method of obtaining data was in line with the policies, it did not subsequently abide by the rules.

Facebook learned about the alleged breach in 2015 and removed the app. All parties involved with the app assured that they had destroyed the data. However, recently, Facebook learned that the data had not been actually deleted and decided to suspend the accounts of the firm and associated people.

Meanwhile, Tyagi said that social media regulation and legislation is complex and diverse in different jurisdictions stressing that what may be illegal and unethical in one place may not be so in India. Interestingly, Tyagi is the son of senior JD(U) leader and former Rajya Sabha MP KC Tyagi, and has worked for the JD(U)-BJP alliance in Bihar in 2010 through OBI, and worked with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in 2012, the report said.

Tyagi, who has also worked on Trump campaign’s outreach to the Indian-American community, said that OBI does booth-level work for parties, including demographics and caste to increase a party’s prospects on the ground. He said that Cambridge Analytica has not done any political project in India.

  • Published Date: March 19, 2018 10:06 AM IST