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View from India: Data protection and social media will be key during elections

The General Elections to the 17th Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies will begin on April 11, 2019. It will be held in seven phases up to 19 May 2019.

India’s elections represent the world’s largest democratic exercise, where around 900 million Indians will cast their votes from 930,000 polling booths to select a new federal government. Voters are electing lawmakers for the lower house of Parliament or Lok Sabha, comprising 543 members. These elections are held every five years.

The 2019 elections are different from the one held in 2014. The strong community of mobile internet and social media users has given this year’s elections a distinct edge. Around 430 million Indians own a smartphone, half a billion use the Internet, 300 million use Facebook, 200 million send messages on WhatsApp and 30 million are on Twitter. These numbers continue to grow.

This huge community will be leveraged for high-pitched, high-profile vitriolic campaigns. Political parties and candidates are using social networking sites, social messaging services, websites, blogs and apps to address a diverse spectrum of voters. This is happening through high-tech 3D rallies and live-streamed messages via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and other social websites and apps. Vernacular messages are also part of the political agenda.

Social media, which was used to some extent during the 2014 elections, is set to be exponentially more forceful this time. While social media has been increasingly leveraged by political parties over the last five years, for this election it has a purpose to fulfill. It will address first-time voters - the millennials - through trendy viral campaigns with a youthful appeal.

In 2018, political parties began to target the young voter community. In March 2019, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi launched the ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign. A video has been released, urging citizens to join the PM on March 31 for a programme titled ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’. The PM will interact with people and as they make a pledge to vote, they will receive a personalised message from Modi on Twitter.

The election process is conducted by the Election Commission of India (ECI), an autonomous constitutional authority headquartered in New Delhi. ECI has approached social media firms to appoint a grievance officer to track political campaigns and handle complaints.

Social media and other digital channels offer an insight into voter data, which is a tool for elections. “A single vote can swing the outcome into a loss (or) a win. With 900 million Indian voters exercising their franchise, data security is paramount. Any compromise can prove to be catastrophic,” said BS Rao, vice president, marketing, CtrlS Datacenters Ltd. “Indian election campaigns are moving from cities, towns and villages to social media platforms that play host to 294 million Indians. It is no surprise that Indian political parties have been actively using social media to their advantage.”

Pocket-friendly smartphones, with prices starting at less than Rs 5,000, are a growth driver of social media platforms. These help political parties reach large sections of the population to amplify support. Their voter connect is direct, interactive and a two-way communication. Other, more traditional, forms of communication such as television or print can pale in comparison, failing to offer personalised engagement.

“We have an unprecedented number of smartphone users and, with the prevalence of free Wi-Fi, people connect to the Internet,” said Prof Radhika Krishnan, Centre for Exact Humanities at the International Institute of Information Technology-Hyderabad (IIIT-H).

With social media platforms proliferating in the election process, voter data calls for security. “To protect voter data [digital data], which is typically stored in a database, it is important to prevent attacks from unauthorised users and destructive forces. The methods that can be applied to secure voter data hosted in a data centre or cloud include encryption, strong authentication methods, data masking, data erasure and taking regular backups,” highlighted Rao.

As far as the security of voter data on social media is concerned, it is the sole responsibility of the social media company to secure the data of Indian citizens and they should be held accountable for any data breach. Social media companies should deploy all available security tools to protect this user data.

This apart, data protection access control, key management, admin access, identity management, dual-factor authentication, application security, access controls, monitoring, anti-malware, vulnerability, patch and configuration management and host protection should be put in place by them to protect voter data. Network security, segmentation, intrusion detection and vulnerability scanning are also other requirements for protecting voter data.

Besides social media, mobile apps can be a clever marketing strategy. Even those who don’t follow politics are drawn into voting through gamified apps. There are several apps to choose from, such as the Neta app with its tagline ‘Leaders ka Report Card’, which encourages users to share their opinion in the form of video reviews and comments. 

Concrete measures should to be taken to secure voter data emerging from such apps. These include strong server-side controls, resilient transport layer protection, binary hardening, robust authentication and superior encryption protocols.

“Some of the mobile app security tools that can be leveraged to protect data include Mocana’s mobile app protection or MAP, Appvigil, an automated mobile reputation protection suite and Shieldsquare, a Mobile App Protection from Bots and Scrapers. Appdome is a Complete Mobile App Protection with TOTALCode Obfuscation,” explained Rao. There’s also DexGaurd, which protects Android applications and software development kits (SDKs) against reverse engineering and hacking. This happens by hardening the code and enabling a defense mechanism at runtime.

During the elections, the data analytics departments of all major Indian political parties are poised to exploit data analytics tools in a major way to continually analyse shifting voting patterns and vote share. Accordingly, they will devise their respective strategies to surge ahead and gain the winning voter share of the ballot boxes.

As India braces for its next churn in politics, the political narrative is interspersed with hashtags, Twitter handles and other viral marketing spiel. Of course, there are also the regular election props, such as television, radio broadcast and print campaigns, posters, banners, campaign songs and purpose-built vehicles for marketing political parties.

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