Congress has not engaged Cambridge Analytica, says Praveen Chakravarty | india news | Hindustan Times
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Congress has not engaged Cambridge Analytica, says Praveen Chakravarty

Praveen Chakravarty, the newly appointed-head of the Congress party’s data analytics department, categorically rules out any truck with Cambridge Analytica and says there is no reason to obfuscate this.

india Updated: Mar 30, 2018 08:25 IST
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi and Prashant Jha
Praveen Chakravarty, the newly appointed-head of the Congress party’s data analytics department.
Praveen Chakravarty, the newly appointed-head of the Congress party’s data analytics department. (Bloomberg file photo )

Praveen Chakravarty, the newly appointed-head of the Congress party’s data analytics department, categorically rules out any truck with Cambridge Analytica and says there is no reason to obfuscate this. In an interview with Aurangzeb Naqshbandi and Prashant Jha, he compares Cambridge Analytica with Nirav Modi and Facebook with Punjab National Bank to describe the international data breach scandal and describes the intersection of data and politics. Excerpts:

What is the role of the data analytics department in the party?

The importance of data is not limited to elections only. And I am the first to say that data cannot win polls. Our role is to use data for various issues and provide an additional input to help the party take important decisions such as what should be its stand, say on triple talaq, or a domestic legislation or a foreign policy issue.

Is politics becoming increasingly technocratic?

Anything that helps us understand the voters and issues better is furthering the cause of representative democracy. Technology, data and data sciences through service have played a major role in this cause over the years. What is different today is just the tools that we use. Today it could be gleaning preferences (what economists call revealed preferences) of voters. If any data is public, that can be gleaned because of the tools of technology. Today, people seem to have no problem in revealing their preferences in public.

What is legitimate and what is not legitimate in terms of use of data? Is the line of ethics and law crossed?

You have to differentiate between public data and private data. Big data does not mean private data.

Can you mine Facebook data without personal consent?

Whatever a Twitter user posts is for public. But if a Facebook user puts something out only for friends and not for public, I cannot use that. So, we have to have this distinction clearly separated. I think it is very clear that anything that crosses the boundary of public to private without the consent of the individual is breach of privacy.

Has the Congress ever asked any technology service provider for personal data of users?

Without the consent of the individuals, no. I have not done it and to the best of my knowledge, the Congress has never done it.

Do you think what Cambridge Analytica did with Brexit and US elections was right or wrong?

It was wrong. There was also a breach of trust by Facebook of giving information about 50 million users to a particular external agency which happens to be Cambridge Analytica — it could have been anybody else. This breach is the fundamental problem. And this issue is as much about Facebook as it is about Cambridge Analytica. In the context of a recent India example, if Cambridge Analytica is Nirav Modi, Facebook is the Punjab National Bank. That is the breach. Both are culprits.

Did Congress engage with Cambridge Analytica? With the whistleblower referring to Congress in his testimony to House of Commons and a poster of Congress in the Cambridge CEO’s office, there is a charge that you did.

The Congress has not engaged with Cambridge Analytica in any manner. There are conversations happening all the time with various firms. As much as the English media may malign the Congress that it is not a player anymore, there are lots of firms that still seem to think that the party is an active player in the electoral space. There are several Indian, US, UK and other firms that hold discussions with us. Small startups in India doing exciting work in data analytics are also in discussions with us. All of them may not be culprits. Let’s not paint everybody with same brush and not throw the baby out of the bathwater.

Has Cambridge Analytica been one of those firms which were in discussion with the Congress?

Yes. But I reiterate that the Congress party has not engaged the services of Cambridge Analytica. The only analogy I can give is if I claim that I am your friend and you say you are not, the onus is on me to prove that you are my friend. There is no reason to obfuscate this. I don’t think this is a big issue. But the Congress has never engaged Cambridge Analytica.

How do you see 2019 just in terms of numbers? Will it be about arithmetic?

I don’t think that the 2019 election is anymore about arithmetic than an election in the past. I don’t think arithmetic or data analytics can win you elections on its own, it is one important element. I said, right after the 2014 election, that it was a black swan event and the 2019 election is open.