India’s digital space has been witness to fireworks related to mobile apps, data safety and privacy over the last few days. It started with the Cambridge Analytica expose, where the “dirty electioneering tricks” of this company were exposed through a sting. However, in India, as the firm was widely reported to have been engaged by the Congress, the BJP naturally questioned them about their deal. The Congress, on the other hand, has focused on attacking the BJP on the NaMo app.
Why would India’s main opposition party spend so much time and energy in attacking not the prime minister, but his app? If it is at the centre of so much attention, the app must certainly be doing something important. Narendra Modi is credited for successfully leveraging social media to reach out to people across the country. But what he is doing with the NaMo app is something unique. He has built a powerful platform, which can give any social media a run for its money.
The app provides a means for millions of his fans and party cadre to connect directly with the PM. Users can create their own profiles, earn points and win special awards for their activity. They can also connect with MPs and MLAs of their constituency. The app acts a work-flow management platform for lakhs of party workers. Even a booth worker can connect to the party president and the PM through the New India Connect section.
The app has enabled numerous path-breaking engagements. There is an Exam Warriors module where students from across the country are forming a community and also writing to the PM. For the Swachh Bharat campaign, people shared photos of their cleanliness activities. During the Gujarat elections, PM Modi had a live video interaction with Mahila Morcha workers through the app.
When a leader has risen to such level of meaningful interaction, it is only natural for the Opposition to feel insecure. Accusations have been flying, some bordering on the senseless. Rahul Gandhi tweeted that the NaMo app “secretly records audio, video, contacts of your friends and family and even tracks your location via GPS”. The absurdity of this claim, especially about the “secret audio, video recording” part, makes one wonder what the Congress is so afraid of. Does Rahul Gandhi truly not understand technology or is he just tweeting ridiculous theories to take the heat away from the Congress? Anyone who uses a smartphone knows that mobile apps request various permissions, relating to camera, microphone, etc. Do all these apps employ this for snooping?
In the NaMo app, one can browse as a guest without having to submit any details. Of course, not all sections and features will be available, which should be obvious since some activities need you to log in. But there is enough value one can extract out of the application as a guest. For example, if you had to comment on some article, you would need to log in and provide details in most applications, not just the NaMo app. If you want a customised birthday wish from Modi, you need to enter your date of birth details. It is obvious that most mobile applications ask for access to some data and NaMo app is no exception. To tailor their content to your tastes, they may ask your interests. Some made claims that the NaMo app sends data to the US. This is patently false. The app simply employs third-party services, just like Google Analytics, for analytics. All apps employ such services. Does that mean they send data to someone? No. Analytics and processing user data are done to offer users the most contextual, customised content.
To raise a stink over such analytics and ask people to delete NaMo app because “Modi is snooping on you” is amusing technological illiteracy, if not deliberate fear-mongering on the part of Rahul Gandhi. The irony is that he is relatively young and the popular perception is that the young people are more informed about technological matters.
In essence, the wording here is so vague that the Congress can possibly share your data with anyone and claim that they fall within one of these groups. For example, they can share your data with Lalu Prasad’s party because they believe they have similar political principles.
Entertainingly though, after creating much hullabaloo about getting people to delete the NaMo app through the trend, #DeleteNamoapp, the Congress ended up taking down its own mobile application and membership webpage because they found themselves indulging in the very same things, or worse. From this turn of events, there is a serious message. Rahul Gandhi and his team must realise that technological literacy, privacy awareness and data security are important issues. Making nonsensical accusations and politicising them only trivialises the debate.