CBI to Probe Cambridge Analytica: What’s the Firm’s India Connect?

Here’s everything you need to know about the Cambridge Analytica controversy and how it affects India.

Updated26 Jul 2018, 12:12 PM IST
Explainers
5 min read
Snapshot

If you are a Facebook user, you are probably familiar with the whole Cambridge Analytica controversy by now.

The data of millions of Facebook users has been mined by firms like the aforementioned Cambridge Analytica, and also Indian companies like Ovleno Business Intelligence to aid political campaigns for various elections. What started off as a major controversy in the United Stated has slowly pervaded into different parts of the world, with India also getting caught in this whole fiasco.

Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told Rajya Sabha on Thursday, 26 July that the Cambridge Analytica data breach case will be investigated by the CBI.

Since the whole controversy encompasses a lot of elements like millions of Facebook’s users, psychological manipulation and the Indian political parties, here’s a quick low down on everything you need to know about the Cambridge Analytica controversy and its India connect.

CBI to Probe Cambridge Analytica: What’s the Firm’s India Connect?

  1. 1. The "Unethical" Breach

    British data analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA) has been at the centre of controversy over the last few days, following reports from The New York Times and UK-based Observer that it breached private data of more than 50 million Facebook users. CA used the data to aid the 2016 presidential campaign of current US President Donald Trump, as well as "changing audience behaviour" in projects like Brexit and even elections in Kenya.

    This has been the largest breach of the social networking website till date.

    The revelations about the breach were brought forward by Christopher Wylie, a former employee at CA and a whistle-blower. Wylie worked alongside Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan, who developed an application called "This is Your Digital Life", which was accessed by almost 2,70,000 users and the same was used to mine the data.

    We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we know about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.
    Christopher Wylie, whistle-blower & former Cambridge Analytica employee

    CA's CEO Alexander Nix has also been suspended pending further investigation into the matter. In an exposé by Channel 4, Alexander Nix and CA's chief data officer Alex Tayler talked about how they ran the digital campaign for Donald Trump.

    Expand
  2. 2. Data Diabolical

    There are plenty of firms all over the world who mine data from the internet from various sources and use the same to target advertisements and conduct surveys.

    But when the same mining takes an unethical turn, like what happened at Cambridge Analytica and Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), the company's Indian arm, it's bound to draw a lot of flack from the media.

    There is a lot of ambiguity on how CA actually used the Facebook data and how they were made available to advertisers, but then again, speculations say that data like location, political leanings, age, liked pages and posts were good enough to help reveal psychological patterns of users.

    Furthermore, they used the data and cross-matched it with the incomplete data acquired from the political survey.

    Here's what the collected data might've looked like according to David Carrol, a professor at New York’s New School.

    Expand
  3. 3. The India Connect

    India has the largest number of Facebook users in the world, with more than 250 million active users, which means there is a lot of data to be mined.

    Now to address the elephant in the room.

    Two of the biggest political parties in India – the Congress and BJP – have been listed as clients on Cambridge Analytica's Indian subsidiary called Ovleno Business Intelligence. OBI is a Ghaziabad-based firm, which claims to have a tie-up with UK based company SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories), the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.

    OBI's website was taken down on 21 March following allegations against Cambridge Analytica.

    Ovleno – Brand Management website’s client page before it was taken down.
    Ovleno – Brand Management website’s client page before it was taken down.
    (Photo: www.ovleno.in)

    The suspension was followed by both political parties having a go at each other on having used the Facebook data mined by OBI for various elections.

    To add to this, the Indian IT minister also went on to warn Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on 21March:

    Mr Mark Zuckerberg, you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India. We welcome Facebook in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of Facebook’s system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you to India.
    Ravi Shankar Prasad, IT & Law Minister
    Expand
  4. 4. The 'Desi' Plot Thickens

    The whole India connect took another turn when The Print did an exclusive story on what Cambridge Analytica did in India. It connects a lot of dots.

    According to the story, the Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, with others from SCL Laboratories, worked on a project in India in 2011.

    Nix flew down to Delhi along with an analyst from Romania named Muresan, with an aim to collaborate with OBI’s Avneesh Kumar Rai, who was working on creating a database of households in many states, profiling them with their demographic details.

    Nix and Muresan planned to expand the project to create a database with an aim to sell them to parties and politicians for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

    According to the exclusive report, some Congress leaders showed interest in CA’s work, but never signed any kind of contract or commissioned any work. Following that, just to prove its prowess, the company decided to create databases of voters in just four Lok Sabha constituencies and gift them to Rahul Gandhi for free.

    Their exclusive also throws light on Muresan's death and how Amrish Kumar Tyagi and Avneesh Kumar Rai became directors at CA post the incident.

    Expand
  5. 5. Going by the 'Facebook'

    Not long after the news about Facebook's biggest data leak broke out, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a long post on how they had 'screwed up', and admitted that Facebook had made a mistake in the Cambridge Analytica situation. He also added that steps were being taken to prevent a similar situation from being repeated.

    He talked about how Facebook in the future will restrict access for apps like the one Kogan developed at Cambridge.

    1. Outlining a three-pronged approach, he said that the first step would be to review the apps that had access to large amounts of data, prior to the 2014 overhaul, and conduct a ‘full audit of any app with suspicious activity’.
    2. The second step, he said, would be to restrict the data the developers can access to prevent any other abuse.
    3. The third step will entail the introduction of a new feature on top of the new feed, which allow a user to view the apps they’ve used, and revoke the apps’ permission to their data.

    The whole fiasco has cost the company almost $60 billion of its total market value so far! But its troubles aren't over yet. The story is still unfolding. Watch this space for more.

    We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated.

    The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.

    Expand

The "Unethical" Breach

British data analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA) has been at the centre of controversy over the last few days, following reports from The New York Times and UK-based Observer that it breached private data of more than 50 million Facebook users. CA used the data to aid the 2016 presidential campaign of current US President Donald Trump, as well as "changing audience behaviour" in projects like Brexit and even elections in Kenya.

This has been the largest breach of the social networking website till date.

The revelations about the breach were brought forward by Christopher Wylie, a former employee at CA and a whistle-blower. Wylie worked alongside Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan, who developed an application called "This is Your Digital Life", which was accessed by almost 2,70,000 users and the same was used to mine the data.

We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we know about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.
Christopher Wylie, whistle-blower & former Cambridge Analytica employee

CA's CEO Alexander Nix has also been suspended pending further investigation into the matter. In an exposé by Channel 4, Alexander Nix and CA's chief data officer Alex Tayler talked about how they ran the digital campaign for Donald Trump.

Data Diabolical

There are plenty of firms all over the world who mine data from the internet from various sources and use the same to target advertisements and conduct surveys.

But when the same mining takes an unethical turn, like what happened at Cambridge Analytica and Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), the company's Indian arm, it's bound to draw a lot of flack from the media.

There is a lot of ambiguity on how CA actually used the Facebook data and how they were made available to advertisers, but then again, speculations say that data like location, political leanings, age, liked pages and posts were good enough to help reveal psychological patterns of users.

Furthermore, they used the data and cross-matched it with the incomplete data acquired from the political survey.

Here's what the collected data might've looked like according to David Carrol, a professor at New York’s New School.

The India Connect

India has the largest number of Facebook users in the world, with more than 250 million active users, which means there is a lot of data to be mined.

Now to address the elephant in the room.

Two of the biggest political parties in India – the Congress and BJP – have been listed as clients on Cambridge Analytica's Indian subsidiary called Ovleno Business Intelligence. OBI is a Ghaziabad-based firm, which claims to have a tie-up with UK based company SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories), the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.

OBI's website was taken down on 21 March following allegations against Cambridge Analytica.

Ovleno – Brand Management website’s client page before it was taken down.
Ovleno – Brand Management website’s client page before it was taken down.
(Photo: www.ovleno.in)

The suspension was followed by both political parties having a go at each other on having used the Facebook data mined by OBI for various elections.

To add to this, the Indian IT minister also went on to warn Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on 21March:

Mr Mark Zuckerberg, you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India. We welcome Facebook in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of Facebook’s system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you to India.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, IT & Law Minister

The 'Desi' Plot Thickens

The whole India connect took another turn when The Print did an exclusive story on what Cambridge Analytica did in India. It connects a lot of dots.

According to the story, the Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, with others from SCL Laboratories, worked on a project in India in 2011.

Nix flew down to Delhi along with an analyst from Romania named Muresan, with an aim to collaborate with OBI’s Avneesh Kumar Rai, who was working on creating a database of households in many states, profiling them with their demographic details.

Nix and Muresan planned to expand the project to create a database with an aim to sell them to parties and politicians for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

According to the exclusive report, some Congress leaders showed interest in CA’s work, but never signed any kind of contract or commissioned any work. Following that, just to prove its prowess, the company decided to create databases of voters in just four Lok Sabha constituencies and gift them to Rahul Gandhi for free.

Their exclusive also throws light on Muresan's death and how Amrish Kumar Tyagi and Avneesh Kumar Rai became directors at CA post the incident.

Going by the 'Facebook'

Not long after the news about Facebook's biggest data leak broke out, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a long post on how they had 'screwed up', and admitted that Facebook had made a mistake in the Cambridge Analytica situation. He also added that steps were being taken to prevent a similar situation from being repeated.

He talked about how Facebook in the future will restrict access for apps like the one Kogan developed at Cambridge.

  1. Outlining a three-pronged approach, he said that the first step would be to review the apps that had access to large amounts of data, prior to the 2014 overhaul, and conduct a ‘full audit of any app with suspicious activity’.
  2. The second step, he said, would be to restrict the data the developers can access to prevent any other abuse.
  3. The third step will entail the introduction of a new feature on top of the new feed, which allow a user to view the apps they’ve used, and revoke the apps’ permission to their data.

The whole fiasco has cost the company almost $60 billion of its total market value so far! But its troubles aren't over yet. The story is still unfolding. Watch this space for more.

We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated.

The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.

Published: 24 Mar 2018, 11:19 AM IST

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