Why We Need to Talk About Cambridge Analytica

One of the things that I do as a part of my three-pronged preparation for interviews is to look up and gather insights about my interviewers from publicly available data on social and professional media. I’ve only given a handful of interviews in my life and hence it is difficult to ascertain whether this works, but it does give me a sense of control over a situation that otherwise – and generally – is uncertain and unknown. Looking up key stakeholders and interviewers on social and professional media becomes a great conversation enabler at times. But I digress… The whole point of this diatribe was to highlight the fact that a cornucopia of information and personal data exists and is readily available for individuals to mine. Now imagine a company that does this – collects and mines social media data – on a mass scale and uses that data to disperse targeted content in connivance with a social media giant, quite possibly influencing the outcome of an election. Scary? You bet!

While you can read all about the Cambridge Analytica (CA) saga here, this mess needs to be explored in an Indian context too – given that we are heading into the General Elections of 2019. Facebook has about 241M users in India. Of these, ~80% are over the age of 18, which translates to about 195M adults. Based on Election Commission estimates, 814M people were eligible to vote in the last general election. Assuming that all 195M people – those above the age of 18 who are using Facebook – are entitled to vote, it can be concluded that ~21-23% of the voting population in India uses the social media platform. And has – willingly and unwittingly – provided access to not only their personal data but also their political leanings. And just to put that in perspective and provide a frame of reference, the difference between the number of votes received by the BJP and the INC was ~64M in the 2014 General Election. The BJP also happens to be the only political party since 1967 to form a majority government at the center despite a measly 31% vote share.


Article published in Firstpost on November 14, 2017

Now imagine a scenario where a company or a political consultancy managed to develop an app or a quiz that goes viral, and gives the developer access to sensitive data including Facebook ‘likes’ and interests. Facebook says that it made changes to its platform in 2014 that limits the amount of data available to apps and requires developers to seek authorization before accessing sensitive data. But what happens to all those apps and developers who had unfettered access to data prior to 2014. Now imagine a political party contracting a company like this to target young Indians who are coming online – and of age – with news that is likely to sway them as voters – inflammatory and objectionable content that panders to the voyeuristic tendencies of young India. And finally, imagine the repercussions of such access and exposure on the outcome of an election in the world’s largest democracy. All it takes is a total of 68 likes… Apparently.


Article/ post on ArsTechnica, published on 21/03

The sad part about this controversy is that all Facebook could do once it discovered the breach was to request Cambridge Analytics to delete the data. And hope that they would comply. Because that is literally how the world works, right?

Note: I’d like to clarify a couple of points here. An article from the Times of India points out that CA’s parent company is present in India via a JV with another company called Ovleno Business Intelligence. They list both the BJP and the Congress as clients. The purpose of this post is not to criticize the government or malign any political party but to point out that the digital realm is where the dirty games of politics are now being played. With user data.

PS: While we’re on the topic of social media, do check out this interesting TED talk by Tristan Harris. Social media companies compete for one thing, and one thing only – your attention. And therefore, by extension, your data. Remember, if it’s free, it means you are the product.

Update: As I write this, Shashi Tharoor has retweeted a thread that goes into a little more depth about CA’s India connection.


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