Decoding the BJP versus Congress battle over data breach

Predatory democracy is already here.

 |  6-minute read |   29-03-2018
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Now the nation knows how Prime Minister Narendra Modi got his 56-inch chest and the muscular tag, loh purush or iron man - obviously from performance-enhancing data harvesting.

The last few days has seen a series of charges being exchanged between the Modi government and a belligerent Opposition led by Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, where the prime minister has been accused of misusing social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and government-promoted apps like NaMo to build a giant personal database on millions of Indians.

Now, the Congress and other leaders like AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal have also used social media and data mining to reach out to voters, but the network champ is none other than Modi, who has left his political rivals crushed on the information wayside.

namoin_032318025328_032818082252.jpgPhoto: DailyO

So, is personal data mining for political advantage akin to doping in competitive sport?

The fundamental principle in democracy, like sports, is of ensuring a level-playing field for all political parties, but data mining has rendered it a giant blow - emboldened yet again by the Modi government.

Only last week, the Lok Sabha passed without debate, the Finance Bill that also amended the FCRA or Foreign Contribution (regulation) Act, which exempts political parties from scrutiny of funds they have received from abroad as far back as 1976.

This will allow a tsunami of unchecked funds for political campaigns that will be unregulated and unrecorded, of which a substantial part will go in building databases to target voters.

If Russia, with its enviable reputation for cutting-edge research in medical and chemical drugs and its vast resources could scoop up a bounty Olympian gold medals - which it had to forfeit in the face of the international doping scandal - guess, which party here has the largest funds today, and which has built a reputation for techno-propaganda?

Take the latest accusation against the BJP on the NaMo app: the expose came from a French security cyber researcher, anonymously named Elliot Alderson, who has also been meticulously collating various security lapses on Aadhaar, when he tweeted that all profiles created in the NaMo app instantly gives your entire device info (operating system, network type, carrier etc) and your personal data like e-mail address, photos, gender, name etc, to a third party domain called in.wzrkt.com - without your consent.

Worse, as Alderson shows, this domain is classified as a phishing link which leads NaMo users to websites that extract confidential data by tricking them to believe they are on a genuine website.

Alderson then went on to provide crucial details of the host domain, called GoDaddy, whose identity info is hidden, but his investigation revealed the domain belonged to a US company called Clever Tap. The company describes itself as the next-generation app engagement platform to enable marketers to “identify, engage and retain users and to provide developers.”

Now, how does the NaMo app work like performance enhancing anabolic steroids on sportspersons? First, just like many athletes and contestants voluntarily accept stimulants for better performance, Modi bhakts or fans may have willfully downloaded the NaMo app knowing well the consequences of data access, but like many sportspersons who were unaware they are being given substances by sports authorities, did all those who signed up for the NaMo app know that their data can be shared?

In fact, the NaMo app clearly tricked everyone who downloaded the app when its privacy policy first said that “personal information and contact details shall remain confidential… and shall not be provided to third parties (the international server) in any manner without your consent.”

However, when Alderson’s tweets exploded, and the ever-vigilant fake news buster site, AltNews exposed how NaMo app users’ data was being sent to the third party US website in.wzrkt.com, which can use the data without any checks, Modi’s team stealthily changed the privacy policy overnight - to include that personal details maybe be shared with third party services to "offer a better experience". Transparency is suddenly the name of the game when caught by info vigilantes.

The Modi government has lashed out with ministers holding press conferences and tweeting jeers against a “techno-illiterate” Opposition, but there has been no clarification or denials of the privacy policy change in the NaMo app.

Digital experts say that though there are password and other access protocol for third party servers, these are lax and can be easily flouted.

So, just like international sportspersons who use masking drugs to avoid detection of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, is Modi too penetrating voter base by Iclouding it with apps like NaMo, or his very successful 2014 campaign through NaMo cell numbers, Mission 272 which engaged volunteers through WhatsApp, Android app, a suite of Facebook apps, apart from EPIC where voters were asked to share their voter ID details via SMS?

For instance, political strategist Prashant Kishor’s Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) that ran the very successful 2014 Modi campaign had mined a harvest of data through social media, and no one knows who owns it - client Modi or CAG?

Rahul Gandhi has rightly asked why is Modi using his position as prime minister to build a personal database of millions of Indians through the NaMo app when he could use the official PMO app to communicate with people.

The “data belongs to India, not the PM,” Rahul Gandhi rightly observed. It naturally leads to questions why Modi has made it mandatory for the 13 lakh NCC cadets all over the country to compulsorily download the NaMo app, and urge children in his book, Exam Warriors, to download the NaMo app?

A community of Exam Warriors is already being built in the app of young children.

It must be remembered that Cambridge Analytica collected data from Facebook by building an app that was a quiz and took details not only of those people who took the quiz, but their friends too. FB may have prohibited the sale of this data, but CA sold it anyway.

Finally, how does data harvesting give politicians an advantage in the electoral sweepstakes? As it has been seen, big money can buy big data which can smash mainstream media and replace it with fake news campaigns, an alternative narrative of facts and propaganda. It can can manipulate political debate and use the vast network of social media from FB, Twitter, YouTube, etc to prey on people's fears and hopes.

Predatory democracy is already here.

Also read: Facebook is in middle of big data scandal so why is EC working with it in India?

Writer

Vrinda Gopinath Vrinda Gopinath @vrinda_gopinath

The writer is editor, altgaze.com.

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