NEW DELHI: The BJP and the Congress on Wednesday accused each other of using the services of embattled data consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) that along with Facebook is at the centre of a global row over the alleged unauthorized use of personal data from the social media giant.
As the firestorm over the issue hit India, the government warned Facebook, which is being probed by US and British lawmakers over a potential breach of user confidentiality, of stringent action if any attempt was made to influence the country's electoral process through "undesirable means".
However, the company's India partner Oveleno Business Intelligence (OBI) lists the BJP, the Congress and the JD-U as its clients. The India partner is by Amrish Tyagi, son of senior JD-U leader K.C. Tyagi. In media interviews, the junior Tyagi admitted that the Youth Congress in Jharkhand, the BJP and the JD-U had used its services to conduct research.
BJP leader and Union Law and IT and Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad cited media reports to allege that the Congress was using the services of the London-based political data analytics firm for the next Lok Sabha election and boost its president Rahul Gandhi's social media profile and its outreach.
"The Congress must explain if it has engaged in data trade with Cambridge Analytica," the minister said.
He said the number of Gandhi's followers on Twitter had risen recently and wondered if the Congress had used the services of the Cambridge Analytica for this "fake popularity".
"Will the Congress now depend on data manipulation and theft to woo voters," Prasad asked.
"These days, there is a lot of news about CA and how it has been involved in data theft, psychometric analysis, data manipulation and subversion of democratic processes. Can the Congress deny that?" he asked.
The Congress returned the fire and accused the BJP of having availed the firm's services in 2010.
"The Congress or its President have never used or hired the services of Cambridge Analytica," Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.
"This is fake agenda, a white lie being dished out on fake facts by the Law Minister. And this has become a daily order with Prasad."
Surjewala alleged it was the BJP and its ally Janata Dal-United which used the services of Cambridge Analytica.
"I think the BJP and Ravi Shankar Prasadji have the maximum experience of Cambridge Analytica, the company they say has indulged in manipulation."
Surjewala cited the firm's website saying that it "was contracted to undertake an in-depth electoral analysis for Bihar assembly elections in 2010".
"If the company does manipulation, why were the BJP and the JD-U using it. But in his pack of lies, he forgot to tell the truth."
Citing media reports, the BJP leader asked the Congress to clarify whether the now-sacked CA CEO Alexender Nix had met several opposition leaders to plan the UPA's election strategy for 2019.
"How many times did Rahul Gandhi and Nix meet and what did they discuss? What is the CA's role in Rahul Gandhi's social media presence?
"It is a matter of grave concern for crores of online users in India that online data and browsing patterns are being used for such means. I want to specifically warn the Congress that the nation will not tolerate any kind of data theft or manipulation in India."
He asked the "Grand Old Party" how much stolen data from Cambridge Analytica was in its possession and how much data of Indian users had been handed over to the firm by the Congress.
Alleging that the firm had been found using illegal means of data manipulation to subvert the democratic process in Kenya, Prasad said the Congress was aligning with such forces to divide the society and win elections.
Prasad, speaking about the concerns being raised over Cambridge Analytica influencing election results, said the government was in touch with the US Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to assess the privacy violations of Indian users.
"We will also summon the company and Facebook to assess the data theft of Indian users and will take strictest action."
Prasad reminded Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg of powers of India's IT Act, saying "you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India".
"If any data theft of Indians is done with the collusion of Facebook systems, it will not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT Act including summoning you in India."