Update: Union IT and Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad shared a similar statement when he was asked about the misuse of “online data to manipulate the electoral process”. This question was posed by K. Ashok Kumar in the Lok Sabha on August 1, 2018, in view of the approaching general elections in 2019. Prasad went on to share the details about the situation as he had previously done in the Rajya Sabha. There was no change in the action plan or any new updates in the probe.
Facebook revealed details of Cambridge Analytica scandal early this year. The company confirmed that the UK-based big data firm scraped user data without consent and it affected 87 million users. It also confirmed that around 5 lakh users in India were affected by the scandal. Now, the government has ordered a CBI probe into the suspected involvement of Cambridge Analytica in illegally obtaining user data of Indians.
The probe has political implications and can help BJP resurrect its claim that the data firm worked for Congress. The IT and Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told Rajya Sabha that Cambridge Analytica did not respond to government notices beyond saying that data of India had not be breached. However, Facebook reported that Cambridge Analytica’s practice that breached user data has also affected Indian users.
Prasad also reflected on communal lynchings where he said that social media platforms must ensure that they do not become a medium for “promoting hatred, terrorism, money-laundering, mob violence, and rumor mongering” and requested these platforms to effectively trace malicious messages. The government is asking platforms like WhatsApp to provide tech solutions that can effectively filter fake news and appoint grievance officers to cooperate with the law, reports Times of India.
There has been a constant divide between tech companies and government over whether these billion dollar upstarts be treated equivalently to media companies. Prasad is putting an end to that question and said that social media companies saying it is just a platform will not be acceptable. “Just as a newspaper cannot say it’s not their responsibility if provocative news is published, the same way, if people die or are instigated to kill due to fake news on social media, then it’s their responsibility,” he added.
After it was revealed that Facebook user data had been compromised by the data firm, both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were sent notices by the government. Facebook claimed that it is cleaning up its internal processes and the Cambridge Analytica scandal is a serious breach of trust but Cambridge Analytica never replied to the notice. Now, the government suspects that it might have been involved in illegally obtaining data of Indians. “The government has entrusted this issue to be investigated by CBI for possible violation of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and IPC,” Prasad said.
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The government is also investigating if the data firm did work for Congress after whistleblower Christopher Wylie said in a statement that Congress was a client of the firm. The CBI probe is a way to keep up the pressure on Cambridge Analytica. SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, decided to shut down operations soon after the scandal became public. How far this probe will go is open to question but CBI is likely to question its employees and Indian partners.