After Cambridge Analytica case, govt asks Facebook if data of Indians was misused

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJatin Gandhi and Vidhi Choudhary
Mar 28, 2018 11:53 PM IST

The ministry has raised five questions in all including whether the personal data of Indian voters and users has been compromised by Cambridge Analytica or any other downstream entity in any manner.

The government on Wednesday asked Facebook Inc to clarify whether the company or any of its associates or partners that has access to user data had engaged in the manipulation of elections, according to a statement issued by the ministry of electronics and IT.

Canadian data analytics expert and whistle-blower Christopher Wylie poses for photographs outside a press conference in London on March 26, 2018.(AFP)
Canadian data analytics expert and whistle-blower Christopher Wylie poses for photographs outside a press conference in London on March 26, 2018.(AFP)

The government release said the ministry sent a letter to the company asking what “proactive measures are being taken to ensure the safety, security and privacy of such large user data and to prevent its misuse by any third party?” and whether the personal data of Indian voters was “compromised by Cambridge Analytica” or any other entity. Facebook has been asked to respond to the questions by April 7.

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The query comes against the backdrop of revelations by a whistleblower that CA had accessed data of millions of users.

This data was allegedly used to influence the outcomes of the Brexit poll and the US presidential election. The same whistleblower said that he “believes” CA was retained by the Indian National Congress, a charge the Congress has denied. Hindustan Times has previously reported, referencing the website of CA’s Indian partner that has since been taken down, that the company claims to have worked for both the Congress and the BJP in India. A parliamentary panel on IT has asked ministry officials to appear before it on April 6 and respond to queries on “citizens data security and privacy”, BJP lawmaker and chairman of the committee Anurag Thakur said.

On March 23, the government issued a notice to political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica seeking details of an alleged data breach and attempts to influence election outcomes.

FB said it is working hard to tackle past abuse and prevent it in the future. “We are strongly committed to protecting people’s information. As Mark Zuckerberg has said, we are working hard to tackle past abuse and prevent future abuse. We appreciate the opportunity to answer questions the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology has raised, as we continue our review of the situation,” a Facebook India spokesperson said in response to an email query.

Experts however said that the government’s questionnaire may not yield much except showing it is serious about data misuse and stressed on the need for a strong data protection and privacy law. Apar Gupta, a Delhi-based lawyer and cyber media law expert, said the government’s communiqué to the social media company is not a legal request and does not originate from any clear basis in law. “Hence, FB may not only choose to ignore it but also will not have any objective legal standard from which to make their response. This entire exercise on part of the government may assuage public concern but will not solve the underlying problem of the absence of a legal protection for data protection,” he added. A 10-member committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge BN Srikrishna is in the process of examining privacy and data protection issues and coming up with a draft legislation.

Sunil Abraham, founder of the think tank Centre for Internet and Society, said Wednesday’s letter sends out the message that Indian policy makers are serious about holding Internet giants accountable for their actions and the eyes of these decision-makers will be on FB in the run up to the next election. India is a key market for Facebook with 217 million people using the platform every month. The company also operates instant messaging app WhatsApp which recently introduced payments on its platform, giving the company access to financial data of Indian users.

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