The Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITy) has sent a notice to data mining and analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, which is at the heart of the case involving alleged breach of Facebook user data, seeking information about its clients in India and whether it had harvested their user profiles. It has also asked the firm to specify who are the “entities,” if any, who engaged the firm to “utilise data of Indians;” how did it collect the data and whether consent was taken of the individuals whose data was used.
Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, partnered with a firm, Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), in India which had mentioned BJP, Congress and JD(U) as its clients on its website before it was taken down earlier this week. “The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has issued a notice to Cambridge Analytica, wherein the serious breach of propriety and misuse of data intended to profile and influence voting behaviour has been highlighted,” an official spokesperson said, adding that the firm has been given time until March 31 to respond to the notice.
“The government is deeply concerned about such developments and is committed to ensure the protection of the fundamental right of privacy and safety and security of data for every citizen of India,” he said.
The government also said that the fairness of Indian democracy and electoral process “is a matter of pride and any attempt to influence the sanctity of the electoral franchise through dubious and questionable means is unacceptable. In particular, all intermediaries and their associates have the legal obligation to maintain security, confidentiality and sanctity of data and any unauthorized use of data can entail legal action”.
On Wednesday, Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad warned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the government would take “stringent action”, including “summoning” him to India, in case of any data theft of Indians.
Prasad also triggered a political war of words when he accused the main Opposition Congress party of having links with Cambridge Analytica, the Facebook associate under the scanner. The Congress then denied the allegation and claimed that the BJP and its current ruling ally in Bihar, JD(U), had engaged the data firm in elections, including in 2014. On Thursday, Zuckerberg, in a post, apologised for the data breach and said that his company would upgrade its security features ahead of the upcoming elections in countries like India and Brazil.
Yesterday, Prasad held a meeting with senior IT ministry officials to discuss analyse the ways to prevent commercial exploitation of digital information of users. “…it is pertinent to observe that the CEO of Facebook, Mr Mark Zuckerberg has apologised for the mistakes his company had made in handling data belonging to its users, and has promised tougher steps to restrict access to such information. There are other downstream players such as Cambridge Analytica and its alleged associates who have been reported to be involved in the data breach,” the government spokesperson said.