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CBI books Cambridge Analytica, GSR for illegal data harvesting


In what could be the first criminal investigation launched against a company and its representatives by India for illegal data harvest, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has booked UK-based Global Science Research (GSR) Limited and Cambridge Analytica (CA) for Facebook data theft and privacy violation of social media users.

Notably, GSR and CA have been booked for criminal conspiracy and under sections of the Information Technology Act.

Following a global uproar over the violation of the privacy of social media users, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology filed a complaint with CBI. The agency, thereafter, launched a preliminary probe in the matter.

In its complaint, the ministry said, “Number of media reports had appeared with respect to illegal harvesting of personal data of users and their friends by a UK based firm CA from Facebook social media platform, through GSR.”

UK firm misused data of FB users

Notably, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica turned whistleblower Christopher Wylie provided international publications with documents which showed how CA and GSR misused data of 87 million Facebook users. It had been alleged that the CA influenced the United States of America voters ahead of 2016 Presidential elections.

The government sought response from Facebook and CA on allegations that even voters in India could have been influenced like in the USA. Facebook informed the government that data of 5.62 lakh Indians could have been illegally harvested. CA claimed that data received from GSR was confined to Americans only. Later CA refused to reply to any queries from the government.

What was found in the preliminary probe by CBI?

The CBI probe showed that founder and director of GSR Dr Aleksandr Kogan created an application “thisisyourdigitallife”. Third party contract and Facebook platform policy specifically said the application was authorised to collect certain specific data of users for academic and research purpose.

However, this application illegally and without the knowledge of users and their friends on the Facebook collected their additional information and data and passed it to CA.

In 2014, CA and GSR had entered into an agreement. “This data included demographic information, pages liked on FB, contents of private messages and other such information,” said the CBI

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Facebook said 335 Facebook users had installed this application and data of approximately 5.62 lakh additional users who were part of their friends’ network was “illegally harvested”.

The probe agency contacted all 335 users but only six of them came forwarded to be examined.

“They unanimously stated that they were misled by the application and were unaware of the fact that their personal and friends’ data was harvested,” said the CBI in its FIR.

“All of them also stated that they would not have used the application if they knew it would do so,” added the FIR.

In 2016-17 Facebook claimed that it had an affidavit from Dr Kogan and CA stating that all such data obtained by them through the application “thisisyourdigitallife” was accounted for, destroyed and there is no scope of misuse.

“This fact confirms that GSR illegally harvested datasets and provided the same to CA for commercial purposes,” said the CBI.

The CBI claims its probe failed to establish whether data sets collected and illegally harvested was indeed destroyed.

Economic Offences Unit of the CBI based out of Headquarters has filed an FIR under sections of criminal conspiracy and the Information Technology Act.


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