Did Facebook Partner with EC to Access First-Time Voter Data?

Why did Facebook partner with the Election Commission for free to run a campaign on first-time voters?

4 min read

Video Editor: Sandeep Suman

In 2017, Facebook offered its platform to help the Election Commission of India to register first-time voters.

But did you know that Facebook offered to do this, for free? The question is, why?

Because this partnership with the EC may have helped Facebook create a huge, priceless data bank of lakhs of first-time Indian voters. Data which could be further sold by Facebook to political parties at a high price.

For instance, imagine a political party contesting the Lok Sabha Elections. It needs to target lakhs of first-time voters. But from across the country, voters are very different, even the issues that matter to them vary a lot.

Now, if a political party gets access to data about these first-time voters from across India, data comprising not just names, ages & addresses, but even email IDs, mobile numbers, personal interests, educational qualifications, political leanings, income level, caste, community – it will not only help in reaching these voters directly, it will also allow a political party to target each voter according to his or her specific nature.

So, access to such data would give a political party a big advantage over its rivals.

Now, has such data accessed by Facebook been misused before?

Do recall the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal which was reported in March 2018 - when data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was revealed to have acquired the data of 50 million Facebook users. It is alleged that Cambridge Analytica helped Donald Trump get elected as US President, using this data for political ad targeting, without the permission of these millions of Facebook users.

Could the same have happened as a result of the deal struck between Facebook and India’s Election Commission? We believe this is a question that needs to be investigated.   

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook claimed there had been no breach of data and that it had suspended Cambridge Analytica from its service.

At the time, the Indian government had also asked Facebook and Cambridge Analytica whether there had been any data breach among Facebook’s Indian users. The CBI was also asked to investigate the matter. What came of these queries and investigations? There is no official information to date.

And why are we reminding you of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica case?

Because one year before the news of this scandal broke India’s Election Commission entered into a partnership with Facebook, potentially putting the private data of tens of lakhs of Indian users, at risk.

Do note, that in 2017, Facebook had over 200 million registered Indian users, around 1/6th of India’s population in one single data base.

EC-Facebook Partnership Deal

So here is how Facebook proposed to work with the Election Commission of India:

The Partnership was named a “Special Drive to enrol left out electors, with a focus on first time electors”.

All Facebook users aged above 19 in India were sent a reminder to register to vote in their News Feeds.

Clicking on the ‘Register Now’ button would send voters to the National Voters’ Services Portal.

Facebook offered to promote the campaign in 13 Indian languages.

And most generously, Facebook also said,

“All expenditure pertaining to sending out reminders to all users, promotion of the initiative and video recordings, would be paid by Facebook and there would be no cost incurred by the Election Commission”.

But in the bargain, Facebook got to know exactly how many of its users were interested in getting registered as voters.

In 2018 Facebook added another key feature, “Share You’re Registered”.

This feature gave a confirmation to Facebook about every user who had registered as a voter creating a priceless data base that any political party would want in order to reach out to first-time voters.

Did Facebook indeed share this data with any political party, we may never know, because, while the Election Commission is answerable to the Indian public via RTI, Facebook is not answerable to us at all.

The Quint has acquired RTI documents related to the EC-Facebook partnership. Interestingly, nowhere did we find a single concern or question raised by EC officials on how Facebook will ensure that the data will be protected by them.

No question asked whether there will be no breach of privacy of Facebook’s Indian users, and no question asked about whether Facebook will share or sell this data to any third party.

In fact, the then Chief Election Commissioner, OP Rawat, did raise concerns about the EC-Facebook partnership after the Cambridge Analytica case was reported in 2018. But a few days later, Rawat confirmed that the partnership would continue. At the time, Rawat did not give any reason for continuing the partnership.

When The Quint recently contacted Rawat about this, he said,

“At a meeting, I was told (by my juniors) that the program (with Facebook) could be initiated as it appeared to be safe and secure. After that, everything was done at the Deputy Election Commissioners’ level”.
OP Rawat, Former Chief Election Commissioner 

So, here are the questions that we have asked the EC:

Why did EC enter into a partnership that gave Facebook full access to data about India’s first-time voters who registered to vote via Facebook?

What measures were taken by the EC to ensure that the data of first-time voters with Facebook was not misused or sold to any third party or any political party?

When Facebook offered this voter-registration partnership for free, did that not raise any red flags with the Election Commission?

Despite the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data-breach controversy, why did EC continue its partnership with Facebook?

Did EC conduct an audit of Facebook’s actual data protection practices to see if they matched their assertions?

We are still waiting for EC’s and Facebook’s response to our questions.

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