Did Cambridge Analytica Help Indian Political Parties Win Elections Too?

Posted by Sourodipto Sanyal in Politics
March 22, 2018

Last week, The New York Times along with The Observer, broke a story on how a voter-profiling company called Cambridge Analytica harvested private information from the Facebook profile of over 50 million users in 2014 for helping its clients in elections in the USA. According to the report in The New York Times, Cambridge Analytica continues to possess most, if not all of the private information from the Facebook profile of the users.

Facebook has come under a lot of criticism after this incident from all quarters.

Last night, in a Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg gave an explanation for what had transpired, describing it as a ‘breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share the data with us and expect us to protect it’.

I want to share an update on the Cambridge Analytica situation — including the steps we've already taken and our next…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, 21 March 2018

In a statement Cambridge Analytica gave to The Times, it acknowledged that it had acquired the data, but also said that the information in question was deleted by them two years ago.

In the United Kingdom, the firm is under investigation by both the government regulators and Parliament for the allegations against it of having done ‘illegal’ work during the Brexit referendum, which took place in 2016.

So, What Does Cambridge Analytica Do?

The firm is in the business of analysing voters’ preferences and reaching out to them in a way that they are convinced of voting for their clients. They try to identify the voters who they believe are the easiest to persuade.

The data which Cambridge Analytica got hold of includes information on users’ likes, networks and identities. Only a small percentage of the users had agreed to disclose this information to any third party. For getting access to this data, they had hired a research firm called Global Science Research. The founder of the firm Aleksandr Kogan told Facebook that he was collecting information strictly for purposes of academia.

Cambridge Analytica And Indian Politics

While Brexit and Trump’s campaign may be far removed from India, there are allegations of existing links between Cambridge Analytica and three large political parties in India – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (INC) and the Janata Dal (United) JD (U).

Such has been the politics surrounding Cambridge Analytica that IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also ended up saying what sounded much like a threat to Mark Zuckerberg. He said, “We welcome the FB profile [sic] in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of FB system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent power in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you in India.”

Both The INC and the BJP are accusing one another of being in touch with Cambridge Analytica for the 2019 elections. Both sides have denied the allegations.

What All Do We Know For Sure?

According to Cambridge Analytica’s website itself, it had a role to play in the JD (U)-BJP alliance coming to power in Bihar in 2010. Cambridge Analytica’s website states, “CA was contracted to undertake an in-depth electorate analysis for the Bihar Assembly Election in 2010. The core challenge was to identify the floating/swing voters for each of the parties and to measure their levels electoral apathy, a result of the poor and unchanging condition of the state after 15 years of incumbent rule. In addition to the research phase, CA were tasked to organise the party base at the village level by creating a communication hierarchy to increase supporter motivation. Our client achieved a landslide victory, with over 90% of total seats targeted by CA being won.”

However, it must be noted that Cambridge Analytica did not exist as we know it today. It was formed by its parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories Group (SCL), based in London, in the year 2013.

Interestingly, Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI) is the company which Cambridge Analytica goes to for on-ground work in India. The man who runs OBI is Amrish Tyagi. He is also the son of senior Janata Dal (United) leader KC Tyagi.

Amrish Tyagi told The Wire, “We complement each other’s services. From the ground-level, we conduct the data [sic] and we share with them.”

The JD(U)-BJP alliance came to power in the 2010 Bihar assembly elections by winning 115 seats in the 243-seat assembly.

However, Tyagi has pointed out that SCL or Cambridge Analytica have not helped OBI in any ‘digital capacity’.

Interestingly, it must be noted that OBI also does list the Indian National Congress as one of its clients.

However, it must be kept in mind that there is no clear evidence which indicates that Cambridge Analytica has mined the data of the users in India for any of the elections in the country.

Yet, it is expected that the political parties on whom questions are being raised will come clean for the sake of both the right to privacy and fairness in democracy, that every Indian deserves.

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Image source: Hindustan Times via Getty Images