India Questions Cambridge Analytica, Forgets About Parent Company SCL

Also neglected in questioning are known Indian sub-contractors of SCL and Facebook itself.


Image Courtesy: TruePublica
On 23 March, India’s IT ministry issued a ‘notice’ to Cambridge Analytica (CA), the UK firm accused of harvesting Facebook data to carry out election campaigns and other behavioral psy-ops, asking it to answer six questions by 31 March. These questions are: i) whether they have been utilizing data of Indians collected from Facebook for any assignment ii) who engaged them for this iii) how did they come to be in possession of such data iv) was consent taken from the individuals v) how was such data used and vi) was any profiling done using this data?

Leaving aside the issue of whether simply asking a foreign company some questions is all that the ministry can think of, the fact that these queries are addressed only to CA and not to its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) shows that the Indian government is like a babe in the woods.
It is amply clear by now that CA used to function routinely through a slew of front organisations or cut-outs as they are called in the spook world. Channel 4’s on-camera expose shows Alexander Nix, the sacked CA boss boasting about this openly. These fronts do not have any traceable connection with the employer. So, asking CA to tell its secrets is dumb.

But that’s not all. No questions are directed towards the SCL, which has openly claimed that it has been working in several countries including Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ghana, Somalia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Libya, Ukraine, Mexico, and regions like ‘Pan-Pacific’ or regional blocs like NATO, besides the US. More importantly, SCL lists an office right here in India – in Ghaziabad, in the suburbs of New Delhi. This office belongs to none other than Ovleno Business Intelligence Ltd. (OBIL), owned by Amrish Tyagi, son of BJP ally JD (U)’s leader K.C.Tyagi.

The Indian govt. would have got to know much more about CA’s secretive dealings by actively investigating entities like OBIL who are right here under their nose. They could have perhaps gained a lot of information about how CA/SCL operates and perhaps even their network of cut-outs and fronts. But in its wisdom, the IT ministry has avoided this most obvious route, thus obfuscating the whole thing.

At the other end too – SCL at the top – the ministry has no questions to ask. SCL was founded in 1993 by adman Nigel Oakes. It operates through 18 companies in UK and another 12 in the US, according to media investigations . It also has 17 international offices, including the one in India mentioned above. CA is an offshoot of SCL, emerging in 2013 from its previous avatar as SCL Elections.

Apart from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, SCL has gathered data on Maoists in Nepal, surveyed local attitudes in Afghanistan, helped win a controversial election in Kenya, assessed effects of US policy on drugs in Mexico, and so on. This clearly shows that SCL and CA are working in close coordination.

SCL/CA has close connections with both the US and UK’s defense and security establishment. It has received contracts worth millions of dollars from not only US State Dept. and the British Ministry of Defense, but also from NATO and Sandia (linked to the US nuclear establishment). SCL is managed by a group of Conservatives and neo-liberal hawks.

If India has any suspicion of social media data misuse, SCL is the most obvious and natural choice for investigation. The absence of any such move itself creates doubts about the seriousness of the Indian govt.’s efforts.

In addition, why not ask Facebook itself? The IT ministry has been super active in interacting with Facebook for acquiring data from user accounts for itself or preserving data from accounts. According to Facebook, the Indian govt. made 9853 requests for data from Facebook in the first half of 2017. Yet, when it comes to asking Facebook whether Indian users data has been accessed either by SCL/CA or any other entity, the Indian govt. is acting coy.

All this leaves one with the impression that Indian IT ministry’s queries to CA, flowing from its “deep concern” about misuse of data about individuals and its worry about attempts to influence elections is just empty rhetoric.




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