The Sansad Bhawan, home of the Indian parliament

CBI to probe Cambridge Analytica’s possible targeting of Indian voters

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At the request of the government of India, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is to investigate whether disgraced data analytics company Cambridge Analytica illicitly harvested data from Indian citizens.

The company found itself at the centre of a major scandal beginning in April when an Observer report revealed that the company had underhandedly collected the personal data of tens of millions of people without their explicit consent or knowledge. This data was used as the basis of a political advertising strategy which targeted Facebook adverts – including in favour of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election – based on the personality profiles of Facebook users.

Facebook later apologised for having allowed the data harvesting to occur on its platform and banned Cambridge Analytica from the site. The company estimated that 87 million users had been affected. It has promised to make changes to its platform to give users greater say over how their data is handled.

Earlier this month, the Information Commissioner’s Office (the UK data protection watchdog) fined Facebook £500,000 for its failure to protect user’s data from the data analytics company. Three US agencies – the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice – opened investigations into the case, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before Congress and the European Parliament for questioning on the scandal.

Now, the CBI is to investigate Cambridge Analytica’s activities in India; it has been reported that 355 Indian Facebook users installing a Cambridge Analytica app may have resulted in the data of more than half a million users being compromised.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Indian minister for law and justice as well as for electronics and information technology, told parliament that the government had requested that the CBI investigate whether the data analytics company had targeted Indian voters.

“It is suspected that Cambridge Analytica may have been involved in illegally obtaining data of Indians which could be misused,” said Shankar. “The government has entrusted this issue to be investigated by the CBI for possible violation of [data protection laws].”

He said that Cambridge Analytica had told the government that Indian users’ data had not been breached, but had been otherwise uncommunicative.

Cambridge Analytica is thought to have been used by the two largest political parties – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) – for “in-depth electorate analysis”, including during the 2010 elections. According to the Times of India, the company had prepared detailed proposals for the INC’s strategy for 2018 state elections and the 2019 general election.

India’s telecommunications regulator has stated that existing rules for data protection by service providers and other companies is insufficient for handling cases such as these, and stricter regulations could be necessary to tackle these cases.

Users in Europe have been slowly turning away from Facebook since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, contributing to Facebook’s poor growth forecasts. Following its second quarter earnings report, the company’s share price plunged approximately 20 per cent, with over $110bn (£84bn) wiped off its overall market value.

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