Congress, BJP spar over ‘data theft’

New Delhi: Hours after the Congress’ Manish Tewari said the Election Commission should investigate which party had or has links with disgraced firm Cambridge Analytica, the BJP on Wedensday fielded senior Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is in charge of both law and justice as well as information technology, who tried to drag the Opposition party into the controversy.

While the senior BJP leader accused the Congress of having “links” with the data analytics firm, the Congress claimed the BJP and JD(U) had used the services of Indian business partner of Cambridge Analytica — OBI (Ovelina Business Intelligence) — during the Delhi Assembly elections. It was further alleged that OBI was also involved in the party’s Mission 272+ (BJP’s slogan for the 2014 general election) as additional support in Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Delhi.

The website of Cambridge Analytica’s India chapter (https://capolitical.com/casestudies/casestudyindia), however, claimed it had provided services for the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) in 2010. The India chapter’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 floating/swing voters for each of the parties and to measure their levels of electoral apathy, a result of the poor and unchanging condition of the state after 15 years of incumbent rule.” Cambridge Analytica is in the eye of the storm after its CEO, Alexander Nix, in a sting operation, boasted about using sex workers, bribes and misinformation to help political candidates win votes.

This information also raised concerns about the London-based election consultancy using personal information from Facebook. It was alleged that Cambridge Analytica had used data mined from Facebook in the voter research it conducted, including for Donald Trump during the 2016 American presidential election campaign.

Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad posed three questions to the Congress: “Will Congress depend on data manipulation and theft to woo voters? Does Congress endorse methods used by CA, namely sex, sleaze and fake news? What is CA’s role in Rahul Gandhi’s social media profile?” The BJP leader cited some media reports which suggested that the Congress will use the services of Cambridge Analytica for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Mr Prasad also cited reports which suggested that the rise in Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter profile could be due to “bots”, which is a software application.

The minister also asked Mr Gandhi to explain CA’s role in his social media outreach, and noted that the Congress had recently appointed a former investment banker to its data analytics department.

Rebutting the charge, Congress communications chief Randeep Singh Surjewala said: “Indian National Congress or the Congress president have never used or never hired the services of a company called Cambridge Analytica. It is a fake agenda and white lie being dished out by Mr Prasad.”

Attacking the BJP, Mr Surjewala said: “Cambridge Analytica’s linked website shows that in 2010 its services were used by the BJP-JD(U). The firm’s Indian partner Ovlene Business Intelligence (OBI) is run by a BJP allied party MP’s son. The OBI company’s services were used by a senior BJP leader in 2009.”

Mr Prasad also warned social media platforms like Facebook of stringent action if any attempt was made by them to influence the country’s electoral process through “undesirable means”.  His comment came amid a probe by a US privacy watchdog and British legislators over a potential breach of user confidentiality by Facebook.

“Let me make it very, very clear… we fully support freedom of the press, speech and expression; we fully support free exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt, covert or overt, by the social media, including Facebook, of trying to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will neither be appreciated nor be tolerated,” he said.

Stating that 20 crore Indians were using Facebook, that made it the company’s largest market outside the United States, Mr Prasad cautioned the social media giant and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg of repercussions under India’s Information Technology Act in case any data breach came to light.

“Mr Mark Zuckerberg, you better note the observation of the IT minister of India. We welcome the FB profile in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of the FB system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers under the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you in India,” the minister said.