The Facebook scandal brings under question India’s cyber security apparatus

Personal data security cannot be compromised at any cost. Facebook, which has now promised to investigate the extent to which ‘rogue apps’ were used to harvest personal data of its users — a reference to the tool said to have been used by Cambridge Analytica and its Indian partner, Ovleno Business Intelligence to influence elections in the US, among others — should be held to account, along with the two data analysis firms of the crime of intruding, misusing and manipulating the social networking databases in India and abroad.

In the Indian context, all the players should be held to closer scrutiny to ensure that online intelligence businesses and social networking players do not deploy grossly unethical means to make satisfy greed. Threats to national security, integrity and economic management are perhaps the only reasons that governments can invoke to access personal databases without explicit consent of its citizens. The Supreme Court while hearing the Aadhaar-related cases, clearly sought a commitment from the government on its ability and commitment to preserve privacy of the citizens’ data. Hence, even sovereign authorities have limitations to their p owers when it comes to accessing personal databases of Indians. The latest admission of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg to wrongdoing on the part of Cambridge Analytica smacks of sheer negligence and possible connivance to influence the outcome of elections in the US, Europe and India. Lawmakers in the US are right when they say the Facebook chief’s remarks “isn’t going to cut it”.

The usage of psychoanalytical tools to predict the voting or allegiance of an individual coupled with access to personal data in any country is unacceptable. This is, in effect, technology tools-driven ‘rigging’ in elections with voters kept in the dark about the development. Using personal data to influence voters also translates to outside forces deciding as to who would become prime minister of a country like India. Reports and media sting operations point to Cambridge Analytica claiming big credit for ensuring the victory of President Donald Trump in the US elections. These reports also suggest ongoing preparations to influence the mid-term polls in several US states later this year. Similarly, Cambridge Analytica’s India partner, Ovleno Business Intelligence’s assertions to have worked for different political parties including BJP, Congress and JD(U), cannot be easily set aside. Instead, an independent public commission will have to unravel the truth disregarding the claims and counter-claims of both BJP and Congress.

The Election Commission, Parliament and Supreme Court will have to jointly take a call on how to deal with the culprits. While bribe takers are dealt with harshly, normally the bribe givers get away. In the present context, while Cambridge Analytica, Ovleno Business Intelligence and Facebook face the music, political parties like BJP, Congress or JD(U) that reportedly hired these fraudsters must be taken to task. The unfolding high technology scandal also brings to question the role of the cyber security apparatus that has been put together by Prime Minister Modi as India prepares to go digital. It is also important to probe how these companies passed muster of cyber scrutiny and economic intelligence units because they are believed to have used bribery and inducements of various kinds — including the use of sex workers — while mining data.