UK Firm Accused of Facebook Data Breach Worked in Indian Elections Too: Report

Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, is reported to have played roles in over 200 elections globally, including those in India, Nigeria, Kenya.


British firm Cambridge Analytica, accused of conducting secret campaigns in elections throughout the world, also had a role to play in Indian polls, an undercover investigation done by Channel 4 News in Britain revealed. Senior executives of the company were captured by the channel talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers to influence elections across the world, the broadcast of the investigation showed on March 19 and 20.

The undercover assignment involved a journalist posing as a prospective client. He met the firm’s chief executive Alexander Nix and recorded the conversation secretly, during which Nix said that the British firm secretly campaigns in elections across the world. This includes operating through a web of shadowy front companies, or by using sub-contractors.

“In the meetings, the executives boasted that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) had worked in more than 200 elections across the world, including Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India and Argentina,” according to the Channel 4 report.

SCL collaborates with Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI) in India and names the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress and Janata Dal (United) as its political clients on its website.

Cambridge Analytica (CA) was formed and created officially in 2013 by its parent company — London-based Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) group.  SCL’s  work and its origin in India were formed in 2010 with the Bihar state elections. The source is Amrish Tyagi, the son of JD(U) leader KC Tyagi, who owns OBI. In the Indian subcontinent, OBI is Cambridge Analytica’s go-to company, the Wire reported.

“CA was contracted to undertake an in-depth electorate analysis for the Bihar Assembly Election in 2010. The core challenge was to identify the floating/swing voters for each of the parties and to measure their levels electoral apathy, a result of the poor and unchanging condition of the state after 15 years of incumbent rule,” CA said in a statement on its India section.

When asked why CA had described the 2010 Bihar elections as part of its work portfolio, even though it came into existence in 2013, Tyagi told the Wire: “If you are going to pitch any big client, they require experience. We can use their experience, they can also use our experience. We collaborate our expertise, there’s nothing wrong with that.”He added: “We complement each other’s services. From the ground-level, we conduct the data [sic] and we share with them.”

Tyagi said that the recent accusations on CA will not stop the firm as well as its  partner in India from continuing with their partnership unless CA is found to “violate Indian law,” the Hindustan Times reported. CA and OBI have had discussions with the Congress and the BJP for a possible collaboration for the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaigns, HT reported, citing two people with knowledge about the matter.

Strategic Communications Laboratories Private Limited is an Indian company based at Ghaziabad, and lists Tyagi and Nix as its directors, the Indian Express reported.

Tyagi said that questions related to Channel 4 News’ story should be directed to Cambridge Analytica. He added that OBI was not involved in any social media or digital work in India and had worked with some political parties on the ground.

Cambridge Analytica has been accused of harvesting data of 50 million Facebook users without their consent and failing to delete it when it was asked to do so by Facebook.

In one of these exchanges filmed by Channel 4, Nix says, “We’ll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we’ll have the whole thing recorded, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet.”

The meetings with Channel 4 reporter were also attended by Mark Turnbull, the managing director of CA Political Global, and the company’s chief data officer, Dr Alex Tayler. The conversations were filmed at a series of meetings at London hotels over the last few months. In the videos filmed during the sting operation, the officials can be seen taking boasting about the victory of U.S. President Donald Trump in American election.

Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called by a UK parliamentary committee on March 20 to give proof about the use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica. Damian Collins, the chairman of the Commons inquiry into fake news, accused Facebook of “misleading” the committee, BBC reported.

A whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who worked with Cambridge Analytica, has alleged that the company collected huge amounts of data through a personality quiz called This is Your Digital Life on Facebook. According to him, 270,000 people took the quiz, and the data of around 50 million users, based mainly in the United States, was harvested without their consent through their friend networks.

Wylie claimed that the data was sold to Cambridge Analytica. It then used it to psychologically profile people and deliver pro-Trump material to them, with an aim to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election, BBC reported.

Sandy Parakilas, the platform operations manager at Facebook who was responsible for watching data breaches by third-party software developers between 2011 and 2012, said that he had warned senior executives at the company about the slack approach to data protection that risked a huge breach, reportedtThe Guardian. “My concerns were that all of the data that left Facebook servers to developers could not be monitored by Facebook, so we had no idea what developers were doing with the data,” he said.

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