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In eye of Facebook ‘data breach’ storm, Cambridge Analytica in talks with Cong, BJP for 2019

The firm denied it had violated Facebook’s rules. A statement by CA said its “robust data protection policies complied with US, international, EU and national regulations.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2018 10:57 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Cambridge Analytica,Congress,BJP
Facebook says it has suspended the account of Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis firm hired by Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, after reports it harvested the profile information of millions of US voters without their permission. (AFP File Photo)

A data analytics firm in the eye of an international storm for allegedly harvesting personal data without the consent of Facebook users will continue its outreach in South Asia in the run-up to key elections in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA), and its India partner, Oveleno Business Intelligence (OBI) Private Limited, have spoken to both the Congress and the BJP for a possible collaboration for their 2019 Lok Sabha election campaigns, said one of the people quoted above.

CA, which played an important role in US President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, was on Friday suspended by Facebook. The New York Times and The Observer reported the following day that CA “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission”, quoting its former employees, associates and documents.

The firm denied it had violated Facebook’s rules. A statement by CA said its “robust data protection policies complied with US, international, EU and national regulations”.

The recent allegations will not deter the firm and its India partner from continuing their collaboration till CA is found to “violate Indian law”, OBI’s CEO Amrish Tyagi said on Sunday.

According to a person familiar with the firm, it has had talks with the Congress and the BJP, with former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is making a bid to get re-elected in 2020, and with the Awami League, the ruling party in Bangladesh, which is seeking re-election in 2019.

“Nothing is confirmed yet. These are all preliminary talks,” said the person quoted above.

“We are in touch with Cambridge Analytica on the controversy. Their officials have denied the allegations and are exploring legal options. Nothing has been established yet,” Tyagi said. “We are partners. If something is established to be in violation of Indian law, then we will of course reconsider it.”

He said the social media legislation and regulation was complex and diverse in different jurisdictions. “What may be illegal and unethical in one place may not be in India and vice versa. So it is too early to say anything.” On its website, CA says it was contracted for an in-depth electorate analysis for the Bihar assembly elections in 2010. “Our client achieved a landslide victory, with over 90% of total seats targeted by CA being won,” it adds.

Tyagi, who is the son of the senior JD(U) leader and former Rajya Sabha MP KC Tyagi, worked for the JD(U)-BJP alliance in Bihar in 2010 through OBI. He then worked with the BJP, when Nitin Gadkari was party president, in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. OBI primarily does booth-level work for parties, looking at demographics and caste to bolster a party’s prospects on the ground, said Tyagi, who also worked on the Trump campaign’s outreach to the Indian-American community.

“Through OBI, I have worked with individual candidates, including in the UP assembly elections of 2017. But Cambridge has not yet done any political project here.” When asked if they had conducted a similar profiling of Facebook users, he said, “Not at all. Cambridge does not have any project here. There is no question of having done social media work.”

First Published: Mar 19, 2018 08:51 IST