Centre for Internet & Society

Data privacy in India is still a nascent subject. Experts say cheap data has led to unprecedented Facebook penetration. Often, it is seen that those who open an account are not aware of the privacy concerns.

The blog post by Subhajit Sengupta was published in CNN-News 18 on April 7, 2018. Sunil Abraham was quoted.

Over 5.6 lakh Indian Facebook profiles have allegedly been compromised and their data leaked to the controversial data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. As per the company, only 335 people in India installed the App yet they managed to penetrate over half a million profiles. 

So, how does this work?

Once a user downloaded the quiz app called “thisisyourdigitallife”, Global Science Research Limited got access to the entire treasure trove of data. There are two mechanisms which are used for this.

First, the Application Program Interface (API) of Facebook called ‘Social Graph’ allows any app to harvest the entire contact list and everything else that could be seen on a users’ friend’s profile. This would take place even for private profiles, says Sunil Abraham, Executive Director of Bangalore based research organization ‘Centre for Internet and Society’.

The second way is when users have a public profile. The algorithm seeks out public profiles from the friend list and would go on multiplying from one public profile to another without any of the users even coming to know what is happening. This is like the ‘True Caller’ application, for it to get your number, you don’t need to download the software. If anyone has the app and your number, then it gets automatically logged there.

Facebook says "Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition of Facebook data through the app developed by Dr Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research Limited (GSR) happened without our authorisation and was an explicit violation of our Platform policies." 

GSR continued to access this data from all the Facebook profiles throughout the entire lifespan of the app on the Facebook platform, which was roughly two years between 2013 and 2015. This means, even if a user is careful enough to not download the application but his/her profile’s privacy settings are weak, the algorithm would infiltrate the data bank.

Amit Dubey, a Cyber Security Expert goes into the details of what the app did, “The app called 'thisisyourdigitallife', which was created for research work by Aleksandr Kogan, was eventually used for psychometric profiling of users and then manipulating their political biases. The app was offered to users on the pretext to take a personality test and it agreed to have their data collected for academic use only. But the app has exploited a security vulnerability of Facebook application.”

Facebook “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it from being sold or used for advertising. 

But this kind of data scrapping is not just limited to Cambridge Analytica. The Social Media Algorithm is often abused in the world of data scavenging and analytics. Even law enforcement agencies have often used similar means to locate possible miscreants. 

According to Shesh Sarangdhar, Chief Executive Officer in Seclabs & Systems Pvt Ltd, similar data scrapping helped them unearth the terror module behind one of the attacks at an airbase last year. Shesh said that through Social Media Algorithm they would often narrow down on unknown terror modules. What his team did was to connect to the profile the whereabouts of multiple known nods converging. That is how the mastermind was located.

Data privacy in India is still a nascent subject. Experts say cheap data has led to unprecedented Facebook penetration. 

Often, it is seen that those who open an account are not aware of the privacy concerns. But as Sunil Abraham puts it, Caveat emptor or ‘Let the Buyers Beware’ does not even apply here. It is not possible for anyone to go through the entire privacy policy. 

“So it is not even right to ask if the consumer can protect his/her own interest. Thus, the state should proactively regulate the industry,” said Abraham.

Facebook has brought in a number of changes to its privacy settings. It now allows you to remove third-party apps in bulk. This welcome change has come after sustained pressure on the tech giant from users and a number of regulatory bodies across the world.