As a whistleblower in the UK named India's Opposition party among the clients of a controversial consultancy, the issue of cyber security has taken centre stage in the country.
A former employee of Cambridge Analytica, the UK-based firm at the heart of a global row over data security, has claimed that the company worked extensively in India in his evidence before a UK parliamentary committee investigating the issue of fake news.
Christopher Wylie deposed before the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) in London last month, amid an escalating row around alleged Facebook data breaches linked with the controversial firm, which has also been linked with alleged attempts to influence elections in India.
“When you look at Facebook's biggest market, India is the top in terms of numbers of users. Obviously, that's a country which is rife with political discord and opportunities for destabilisation,” said Labour MP Paul Farrelly, member of the parliamentary committee, during his questioning.
“They [Cambridge Analytica] worked extensively in India. They have an office in India,” Wylie responded.
"I believe their client was Congress, but I know that they have done all kinds of projects. I don′t remember a national project but I know regionally. India′s so big that one state can be as big as Britain. But they do have offices there, they do have staff there," he said.
The whistleblower offered to provide the committee “documentation” on India, which was welcomed by Farrelly, who said India was a country that did not need any added “tensions”.
Wylie later unveiled some of these documents on Twitter, which named the Janata Dal (United) as a client during the 2010 state elections in Bihar and revealed some caste surveys carried out in Uttar Pradesh by SCL India - the parent company of CA.
“I′ve been getting a lot of requests from Indian journalists, so here are some of SCL′s past projects in India. To the most frequently asked question - yes SCL/CA works in India and has offices there. This is what modern colonialism looks like,” Wylie tweeted.
His message included documents which indicate that SCL India boasted a database of “over 600 districts and 7 lakh villages, which is constantly being updated”. Its reach in India is said to include a head office in Ghaziabad, with nine regional offices in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Cuttack, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Indore, Kolkata, Patna and Pune.
“SCL India was asked to provide research and strategy for the 2010 State Elections for the Janata Dal (United). SCL undertook a behavioural research programme targeting over 75 per cent of households to assist the client in not only identifying the correct battlegrounds, but also the right audiences, messages and most importantly the right castes to target with their campaigns,” Wylie's document notes.
It also reveals caste census and caste research campaigns carried out in
in 2011-2012 on behalf of a “national party”.
“The research included analysis of caste structure and dynamics within the state leading to conclusions regarding the identification of the party's core voters as well as likely swing voters,” it claims.
Other aspects of the document cover the company's work across different states including during the 2003 Rajasthan election for a “major state party”; Madhya Pradesh in 2003 for a “national party” to identify swing voters; a full political survey for a “major party” during the 2007 Uttar Pradesh elections; and managing the campaigns of a number of Lok Sabha candidates for the 2009 national elections.
“Our services help clients to identify and target key groups within the population to effectively influence their behaviour to realise a desired outcome,” the SCL India material claims.
It also highlights some work on countering “recruitment into and support of” violent Jihadism in the states of Kerala, West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and UP in 2007, in support of a trans-national programme for countering non-desired behaviour (NDB).
During his evidence before the UK Parliament committee, Wylie also revealed that his predecessor, Dan Muresan, Head of Elections at SCL Group, had also been working in India before he died in Kenya under mysterious circumstances. He claimed to have heard stories that Muresan, a Romanian national, may have been poisoned in a hotel room while in the African country.
Paul-Olivier Dehaye, also giving evidence to the committee, added that he had heard reports that Muresan was being paid by an Indian billionaire who wanted Congress to lose elections.
“So, he was pretending to work for one party but actually paid underhand by someone else,” said Dehaye, co-founder of PersonalData.IO, a service that helps individuals regain control over their personal data. He added that it would be for Indian and Kenyan journalists to get together to investigate the matter further.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has declined to appear before the UK Parliament committee amid the ongoing row over data breaches linked to the social media company.
A summons letter had been sent to Zuckerberg by Damian Collins, the chair of DCMS. In a response to Collins, Facebook's head of public policy, Rebecca Stimson, said the company would be putting forward its chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, or its chief product officer, Chris Cox.
"Facebook fully recognises the level of public and Parliamentary interest in these issues and support your belief that these issues must be addressed at the most senior levels of the company by those in an authoritative position to answer your questions,” Stimson said.
"As such Mr Zuckerberg has personally asked one of his deputies to make themselves available to give evidence in person to the Committee," she said, adding that both men likely to step in report directly to Zuckerberg and are among the longest-serving senior representatives in Facebook's 15-year history.
The DCMS, which is currently hearing oral evidence as part of its inquiry, was not impressed.
“We will seek to clarify from Facebook whether he [Zuckerberg] is available to give evidence or not, because that wasn't clear from our correspondence. If he is available to give evidence then we would be happy to do that either in person or by video link, if that would be more convenient for him,” Collins said in a statement.
Wylie has accused his former employer, Cambridge Analytica, of gathering the details of 50 million users on Facebook through a personality quiz in 2014. He alleges that because 270,000 people took the quiz, the data of some 50 million users, mainly in the US, was harvested without their explicit consent via their friend networks.
Wylie claims the data was sold to Cambridge Analytica, which then used it to psychologically profile people and deliver material in favour of
during the 2016 US presidential elections.
He also criticised Cambridge Analytica for running campaigns in “struggling democracies”, which he called "an example of what modern-day colonialism looks like".
"You have a wealthy company from a developed nation going into an economy or democracy that′s still struggling to get its feet on the ground - and taking advantage of that to profit from that," he told MPs.
Cambridge Analytica denies any of the data acquired was used as part of the services it provided to the Trump campaign.
In an undercover report, Cambridge Analytica executives had been caught boasting that they, along with parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), had worked in more than 200 elections around the world, including India, Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic and Argentina. The recordings were made during a series of meetings at London hotels between November 2017 and January 2018.
While the House of Commons′ committee investigation into fake news will resume by mid-April, the wider issue of cyber security will continue to play out in each of the individual countries caught up in the scandal.