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The latest issue to rock the political boat worldwide and in India is the reported unethical personal data collection from facebook, without the permission of the users, by a private company called Cambridge Analytica (CA) to advertise and influence elections.
The issue came to light when a number of undercover investigative videos, released in March 2018, showed Cambridge Analytica’s Chief Executive Officer, Alexander Nix, boasting about using prostitutes, bribery sting operations, and honey traps to discredit politicians on whom it conducted opposition research.
The Indian affiliate of Cambridge Analytica is a company called Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), which is being run by Mr Amrish Tyagi, the son of Janata Dal (United) leader KC Tyagi. The website of Ovleno mentions that BJP, Congress and the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar are its clients.
Though, Ovleno’s website has now been suspended, but its publicly available LinkedIn page of one of the Directors, Himanshu Sharma, states that he “managed four election campaigns successfully for the ruling party BJP” and “achieved the target of mission 272″. .
Moreover, Mr Tyagi, in a recent interview to NDTV, said that his firm had worked for the BJP in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and had done work for the Youth Congress in Jharkhand between 2010 and 2011.
The website of Cambridge Analytica also boasts of providing its services during the Bihar election in 2010 that resulted in a landslide victory, with over 90 per cent of the total seats targeted by CA for the Janata Dal United-BJP alliance.
However, none of the political party’s has accepted that it has any association with CA or its Indian affiliate or used its services to influence the election process.
How Cambridge Analytica came into Existence?
A private British company dealing with behavioural research and strategic communication, called the Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) was founded in 1993 by Nigel Oakes, who had a background in TV production and advertising.
Oakes was of the opinion that in order to shift mass opinion, academic insights as gained through psychologists and anthropologists could be applied, and would be more successful than traditional advertising methods.
The initial commercial success gained by SCL, encouraged it to expand into military and political arenas. The services of SCL have been used by the military and politicians to study and ‘manipulate public opinion’ and ‘political will’.
It uses what have been called “psy ops” to provide insight into the thinking of the target audience. According to its website, SCL has influenced elections in Italy, Latvia, Ukraine, Albania, Romania, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Colombia, Antigua, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, St. Kitts & Nevis, and Trinidad & Tobago.
Cambridge Analytica was formed by SCL in 2012, with the primary motive of influencing the election process in the United States. It is said to have been involved in US Senate and state-level elections, since then.
Cambridge Analytica is believed to have entered the Republican Party Presidential Primaries for 2016 elections and was heavily funded by hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a major supporter of Ted Cruz and then Donald Trump. Consequently, CA is now under investigation by the US government.
Modus Operandi of Cambridge Analytica
The $500 billion business model of Facebook provides enormous opportunities to intimately know, influence and manipulate its 2.2 billion users.
The platform holds basic and personal information about the world’s three billion internet users, or if you like, intelligence on 30% of the global population.
The Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Chris Wylie, a 28-year old former employee of the company, claims that the company acquired data of 50 million Facebook profiles in 2014 via personality profiling app ‘thisisyourdigitallife’, built by Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge psychologist.
While the app was downloaded by just 2,70,000 Facebook users, it pulled in data from the “Facebook friends” of these users, allowing CA to harvest the data of 50 million users, without their consent.
In other words, hundreds of thousands of people gave access to their entire profiles so they could take personality tests. The modus operandi of CA was to use data from Facebook to profile individuals and it claimed that with just 90 odd posts, it could predict with a fairly high degree of accuracy the voting preferences for individuals.
Information campaigns were then micro-targeted at these users based on their preferences and vulnerabilities, for instance, posting slogans, hard hitting messages and videos that could influence the mind of fence-sitter voters. In many cases, sting operations were organized to be conducted on politicians to discredit them after their weakness for money and honey was identified through personality profiling.
The latest revelations bring to the fore, as to how billions of people are volunteering to share photos of their children, details about their sexuality and relationships, their political interests, and their deepest thoughts and feelings to a global data exploitation company.
And if you’re worried about what Cambridge Analytica can do with merely 2% of Facebook’s profile data, just consider what larger companies, including Facebook itself, powered by all 2.2 billion profiles can do.
Thus, the adage that “nothing comes for free” is justified. Sooner or later we do have to pay for what we use and sometimes it may cost us our future.