Facebook Data Leak: Elections in India Still Under Threat

Chief Election Commissioner of India - O.P. Rawat
Chief Election Commissioner of India – O.P. Rawat

Facebook is not giving any clear-cut assurance to protect users’ data that can be stolen and misused to influence elections.

By Rakesh Raman

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly apologized for the mistakes his company makes in handling user data with the promise to take tougher steps to avoid data breach in future.

Zuckerberg explained his company’s position to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday. He took personal responsibility for the leak of confidential data of about 87 millions users, and assured that his company will ensure that the upcoming elections in India and other countries are safe.

Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook constantly struggles to protect the social media site from Russian manipulation that is aimed to influence elections in the U.S. and elsewhere.

But except for his apology, he did not offer any argument on how Russians and others used Facebook for stealing user data while the data theft may be happening even now.

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It was Zuckerberg’s first formal hearing before the Congress on Tuesday while earlier he was reluctant to appear claiming lack of knowledge about the whole data breach issue.

Impact on Indian Elections

The multiple data breach incidents that have reportedly happened with the involvement of British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) and Facebook have become a hot potato in the Indian political arena.

As the Indian government believes that Facebook data of Indian users has been improperly used for influencing the elections in the country, the government had issued notices to CA as well as Facebook asking both the companies to explain their positions.

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While deposing before the UK House of Commons Committee which is investigating CA’s role in different countries, CA whistleblower Christopher Wylie said that CA has an office in India and it worked with the Congress party, although Congress has been facing a series of electoral defeats in all parts of the country.

Earlier, Congress had alleged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been working hand in glove with CA and Facebook to win elections fraudulently.

BJP also has alleged that Congress posters have been spotted in Cambridge Analytica London office. BJP added that Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his party cannot deny these evidences.

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“After whistleblower Christopher Wylie’s confession in the UK House of Commons Committee, Congress posters are spotted being flaunted in Cambridge Analytica London office. How long will Rahul Gandhi and his coterie continue to lie and deny irrefutable evidences?,” BJP asked.

Meanwhile, Facebook launched Tuesday something called Data Abuse Bounty to reward people who report any misuse of data by app developers. While Facebook says it is among the company’s efforts to more quickly uncover potential abuse of people’s information, the launch of this service is a kind of damage-control exercise which may not be enough to protect users’ data.

While Facebook is promising to protect data, a new case has already surfaced in New Zealand where the users downloaded an app on Facebook and that could have exposed their information to the data mining tactics of Cambridge Analytica.

By Rakesh Raman, who is a national award-winning journalist and social activist. Besides working at senior editorial positions with leading media companies, he was writing an exclusive edit-page tech business column (named Technophile) regularly for The Financial Express (a daily business newspaper of The Indian Express Group).

Earlier, he had been associated with the United Nations (UN) through United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) as a digital media expert to help businesses use technology for brand marketing and business development. He also runs a free school for deserving children under his NGO – RMN Foundation.

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Rakesh Raman