Indian commuters pass a poster advertising Facebook’s “Live What You Love” campaign in Bengaluru, March 22. India, March 21, warned Facebook of stringent action for any attempt to influence polls by allowing data theft and even threatened to summon Zuckerberg if needed. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

Allegations, counter-allegations and swipes over data theft are hogging headlines and determining the course of national, political and social debate in India, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.

The latest tirade has been hurled by the main opposition party, Indian National Congress’s Chief, Rahul Gandhi at Prime Minister Narendra Modi accusing Modi’s official mobile application (Namo App) of transferring personal user data to a third-party domain that can be traced to a U.S.-based company, and without the consent of roughly five million users who have downloaded the app on their mobiles.

Based on revelations of Elliot Alderson, a French vigilante hacker, Gandhi tweeted, “Hi! My name is Narendra Modi. I am India’s Prime Minister. When you sign up for my official App, I give all your data to my friends in American companies.”

The government reaction was immediate and along expected lines, of denial, and the reasons tendered were—all data is secure in the hands of the government and is being utilized only for analytics using third party service, similar to Google Analytics, to improve contextual content.

It clarified that the app that can be downloaded from Google Android Play Store allows user-access even in a guest mode and thus requires no permissions.

Since Gandhi’s jibe at the Namo App, Alderson tweets, the Namo App has “quietly” updated its privacy policy.

But the ruling party, BJP has brought the alleged Congress’ engagement with the controversial Cambridge Analytica (CA) in India center stage.

The British political consulting firm, CA recently faced international wrath for supplying political parties with data gathered from the social network, Facebook (FB) to be used for psychographic profiling and unethical influencing of voters in the U.S. and UK elections.

A judicial enquiry has been ordered and the CA has been served notices to explain its involvement with India based firms, its methods of data gathering, if consent of users was obtained, conversion of this data into digital intelligence, and role in Indian polls.

Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also warned FB of “stringent” action for any attempt to sway elections through data theft, and threatened to “summon its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, if needed.”

A laptop showing the Facebook logo is held alongside a Cambridge Analytica sign at the entrance to the building housing the offices of Cambridge Analytica, in central London, March 21. Facebook expressed outrage over the misuse of its data as Cambridge Analytica, the British firm at the center of a major scandal rocking the social media giant, suspended its chief executive. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of expose wherein CA flouted FB guidelines, Zuckerberg had issued an apology for the “major breach of trust,” and promised to take steps to protect user data.

In compliance with principals of propriety and data hygiene FB has also tweaked its usage policy for third party apps, including login process, to ensure limited access to user information.

This political mudslinging, some of it as wild as they can be, has erupted at a time when an intense legal battle is being fought in the Supreme Court over the possible breaches of rights of citizens (the one on privacy as declared by the court last year) in terms of data protection, safety and freedom by the Aadhaar or national biometric ID scheme, due to inherent vulnerabilities embedded in it, and an impending General Election when foreign powers influencing electoral outcomes may be imputed by political parties and which in turn could result in much outrage and disillusionment with democracy.

As such, data gets intricately woven into the fabric of human life a foolproof protection of the big amount of data that is being habitually uploaded online and thus driving the growth of data-driven businesses such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and UBER to humongous scales is actively protected.

The call for data privacy and ethical use become especially significant in the Indian context which has the second highest number of internet users in the world and 200 million accounts in the social giant, Facebook itself, and distinct firms have reinforced their dominance in specific categories of digital services and an indigenous growth that apes and resembles global firms in collecting, storing and studying online behavior.

As of now nothing more than the Information Technology Act of 2000 and ordinary contract laws cater to a Business Process Outsourcing environment, obviously ignoring the complete spectrum of data, digital controls and exploitation.

In its quest for a robust and comprehensive data protection regime, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology recently released a white paper on data protection framework, prepared by a panel led by Justice B.N. Srikrishna.

Not too long ago in the Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) versus Union of India case, the Supreme Court had held: “The object of data protection regimes is to protect the autonomy of the individual by protecting the identity of the individual.”

It is still uncertain as to how the panel will lift off the haze over individual and collective rights, and lay down a cross-cutting constitutional, legal framework free from the capitalistic and government encumbrance, to authenticate, protect and regulate the constant flow of data from the socio-economic milieu.