Has Cambridge Analytica endangered our elections forever?

cambridge analytica
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Democratic festival aka general elections in India, by the very nature of their volume, eligible voter count, number of constituencies involved and the fact that they not only decide the fate of many big politicians but of the nation as a whole, have always been more rough than smooth. Yet their integrity and transparency, (barring few exceptions sometimes), have largely been intact. But so was thought of the privacy of US citizens until Snowden revealed otherwise to the world through wiki cables.

In his long testimony before the US Congress, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg categorically admitted that his company had in fact indulged in the data scandal and theft done by Cambridge Analytica and his failure of putting in place strong measures to protect its users data has brought in new fears of the subversion of the electoral process across world democracies, especially in India.

In another similar testimony to the British parliamentary committee, Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica which identifies itself as a data analytics and political consultant firm, it was clear that the Congress in India did try to gain the benefits of its services, thereby intentionally diluting the integrity of Indian elections. Reportedly, the firm was involved in “all kind of projects” in India and had the Congress as one of its major clients. The BJP also asserted that the Congress Party’s campaign in last year’s Gujarat assembly poll was managed by Cambridge Analytica and that it is also engaging the firm for the 2019 polls.

It would be disastrous for a democracy, where millions exercise their voting rights, to be complacent about any such unethical meddling of their opinions, of their free voting choices, that could influence the voting outcome, directly or even through any kind of remote manipulation. Worse, by a foreign company. But Cambridge Analytica on behalf of politicians who hire them seems to be doing it, or has done it already.

Now, the question to be asked here is this: Has Congress’ tying hands with Cambridge Analytica endangered the sanctity of our democratic elections forever?

I do not care much how the company influenced the outcome of 2016 US presidential election or the Brexit vote in the UK or other events, but I couldn’t tolerate anything when it threatens to alter the long standing and time tested democratic virtues of my nation (except for the electoral prying of Sardar Patel by Congress which is still frowned upon). At a time when India is already battling to prevent fake news and propaganda campaigns over caste and religion by the oppositions in the wake of 2019 elections, the hijacking of user data could serve as a major tool to safeguard their ambitions. Imagine what would happen if the current government is overthrown in 2019, not by a genuine mandate but by a serious (albeit temporary) manipulation of voters’ minds and beliefs. The consequences would not languish soon until five years of corruption and loot has already dented the country further, putting it back from where it picked up speed after 2014.

“In total, we believe the Facebook information of up to 87 million people — mostly in the US — may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica,” writes Mike Schroepfer, CTO Facebook, in his blog and claims that over 5 lakh users’ information from India may have been improperly shared.

Director and CEO of SCL group companies including ‘SCL elections limited’ (British registered name for Cambridge Analytica) Alexander Nix (now suspended) apparently does the work of running secret campaigns in elections across the world including social media branding and voter targeting using front companies and subcontractors. And then selling the profiles created to companies run by politicians that use them to study and manipulate public opinion and political will. The unfairness of such firms is even linked with military coups, writes Politico. Cambridge Analytica models their work on the research done by of Michal Kosinski in 2008 who developed a profiling system at Cambridge university using general online data, Facebook likes, and smartphone data, and showed that with a limited number of “likes”, people can be analysed better than friends or relatives can do, and that individual psychological targeting is a powerful tool to influence people. The company, along with this, also uses the outcome of psychographic research done by scientist Aleksandr Kogan combined this with artificial intelligence to create a unique data analysis model.

How much damage is already done, is not as important as how much more it can do if such backdoor data-thefts is not restrained. While the election commission in India identifies ways to neutralize such forces that subvert the electoral process, and a contrived and humiliated Zuckerberg realizing the need for them to broadly understand their responsibility towards such large volume of their user data, we also need to understand that the prime ownership of our data should remain with us – the owners. That status quo should never change for the sake of our own privacy and, in this context, for the sake of our nation. 

Votes govern the future of our nation. Imagine if such companies succeed to bring out electoral results their clients desire against the nation’s genuine mandate. There would be hardly any back-tracking to validate the results but the country would suffer for long. We have seen political parties resort to booth capturing, not allowing opposition to file nomination papers like the recent TMC move in West Bengal, vote-buying, creating communal-disharmony, minority appeasement and other unconstitutional strategies to woo voters in their favor, but these physical means to capture the mandate can be largely prevented by judicial interference, proper execution of law and order, creating awareness among voters and so forth.

However, in the technology-driven information age, the challenge of conducting free and fair elections has grown manifold. APIs and Apps snooping you privately, websites storing cookies without your notice, targeted ads eavesdropping on your page are new tools and are far too superior than all the previous ones. Even a small thing as a company targeting ads know what you visit. So, like Senator Nelson, if you happen to show your love for chocolates, you will see ads for chocolates on Facebook/Google. This is precisely how targeted communication fundamental operates. To show you targeted ads, messages, and emails. The companies even employ business intelligence research, investigation and surveillance services to spread the influence.

Micro-targeting evolves into complete campaigns after harnessing your personality traits and creating a psychometric data profile; showing you the algorithmically curated content to unconsciously shape your opinions and choices further.

No doubt, social media can tempt you to share your most personal moments and choices with the public, through what you like, what you share, tag or tweet and so forth – and thereby influencing the ones who are connected to you as well. Every website click you make, every site you visit, every tweet you retweet or a post you like, you leave behind a tiny portion of your personal behavioral preference, like a digital footprint. And if this data is leaked to a company that specializes in data mining and data analysis, it can use it to psychologically influence you thereby compromising the very fairness of your choice in future – i,e during elections, killing the essence of a true democracy like India, one voter at a time.

When Cambridge Analytica happened, much of the data we shared was already compromised and our digital profiles already to highest bidders.  ‘This Is Your Digital Life’ quiz that made the data-harvesting possible revels that even the quiz/games we play online collect our data without our notice. Fake twitter handles, or blue tick profiles may induce false belief in us. So to contain the damage, we now need to be aware of what we share or like, careful about the apps we install, the websites we give permission to store our data.

With India becoming the largest mobile manufacturing nation and around 462 million internet users, only behind China, the scope of this threat only increases. Especially after 2014, Indian voters are witnessing an age where caste, gender or religion equations, matter less and less than economic and civic challenges. No one bothered about Rajya Sabha elections outcome before, now even political rallies sweep the trends. Youth today is more aware and want to participate in the government accountability more than ever, but at the same time more busy and hence more technologically dependent as well. They eat their breakfast while consuming the curated news and Facebook posts, and that also injects a certain level of vulnerability in what they see or read and how much they know if what they see is what being deliberately shown to them.

And hence not only us, the government too needs to be vigilant around this essential expansion of Indian youth’s electoral mindset and enthusiasm and ensure that foreign entries into this process are thwarted. It can ponder over policies to bring strict institutional checks on how and to what extent third-party service providers can use our data, including Aadhar data, if need be and frame mitigation plans if the companies go bankrupt or merge to ensure that data remains safe.

The solution is by working together. I witness ‘Big data’ taking over our current manual and routine IT jobs and if we don’t align ourselves with this transformation silently happening under our nose, our future is unpredictable but it would be the last thing I would want to see if the same technology falls in the hand of those who use it to hijack elections, news or opinions in India. And to ensure it does not become a reality, the prime onus is on every voter, every user ‘in the connected world’ to use the mobile-internet technology wisely and cautiously and tell others to do the same.

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Amit Radha Krishna Nigam

Author : Musings of Desire (2015) Pilgrims (2014) Awake, Wonder and Lost (2008)
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