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CBI to investigate if Cambridge Analytica violated IT Act, IPC, says Ravi Shankar Prasad

Facebook has faced increased scrutiny in the United States and the European Union over how Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal data of 87 million Facebook users. The consultancy allegedly used the data to support US President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

india Updated: Jul 26, 2018 21:00 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
CBI,Facebook,data theft
Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said it is suspected that Cambridge Analytica may have been involved in illegally obtaining data of Indians which could be misused.(HT File Photo/Sonu Mehta)

Union information technology (IT) minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday said the government had asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe if data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica illegally obtained and misused data of Indian voters.

“The government has entrusted this issue to be investigated by CBI for possible violation of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and IPC (Indian Penal Code). It is suspected that Cambridge Analytica may have been involved in illegally obtaining data of Indians which could be misused,” Prasad said, replying in Rajya Sabha to a motion on misuse of social media platforms for spreading rumours and fake news.

The IT minister added that Cambridge Analytica’s initial response was that data of Indians had not been breached, and that this isn’t in conformity with what has been reported by Facebook. “Cambridge Analytica also did not respond to a subsequent notice,” Prasad said.

In March, a whistle-blower claimed Cambridge Analytica misused a partnership with Facebook to access data of millions of Facebook users. The analytics company allegedly used the data to possibly influence voters in the Brexit vote and the US presidential election in 2016. Around 87 million users were affected; of which 562,000 were in India, according to Facebook.

Participating in the discussion, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad expressed serious concern over incidents relating to abuse of social media that lead to mob lynchings. “It is a matter of shame that such incidents happened in a civilised nation like India and tarnish its image within as well as abroad,” he said.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has come under scrutiny in India after forwarded messages on the platform have allegedly incited mob fury, triggering multiple cases of lynching across the country, where there are more than 230 million monthly active users of the messaging app.

Prasad said that WhatsApp had informed the government that it will introduce fact-checking and fake news verification mechanisms to help people check the veracity of content on the platform.

“The government has asked these platforms to provide technological solutions so that verified fake news and provocative messages can be filtered,” Prasad said, allaying concerns of members that social media platforms were being used to spread rumors and fake news.

Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’ Brien said that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 using social media to condition the minds of people. Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s KK Ragesh demanded that special courts be set up to handle such cases. Nominated Rajya Sabha member KTS Tulsi called the incidents of abuse of social media that lead to mob lynchings a “special kind of violence.”

Replying to the opposition member’s criticism, Prasad said the government would strengthen the legal framework to ensure that social media and instant messaging service providers operating in India do not deprive their Indian users of the right to hold them accountable under Indian law.

“We are seriously considering that through appropriate rules all social media platforms should be required to locate their grievance officer in India,” Prasad said.

The duty of such a grievance officer, Prasad added, should be not only to receive grievances on a real-time basis but also to inform law enforcement agencies in case of any violations.

The government also plans to issue directives in public interest requiring all social media platforms to ensure that they do not become “vehicles for promoting hatred, terrorism, money laundering, mob violence and rumour mongering.”

Prasad said that though the government does not regulate content appearing on social networking platforms, such platforms are required to follow due diligence under the IT Act.

First Published: Jul 26, 2018 19:40 IST