Fighting for votes in 'the world's biggest data mine'

A supporter of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) uses his mobile phone before a roadshow by BJP candidate ahead of the second phase of voting for country's general elections, in Hyderabad on April 24
India’s combination of high smartphone take-up and lax regulations mean that most political parties have gathered "the data to do everything" [Getty Images]

They are the apps every Indian has on their phone - the one where you order your taxi, your food, find your next date. Innocuous, everyday, unremarkable to billions around the world.

In India, these are also potentially the apps telling politicians everything they could possibly want to know about you - whether you want them to or not.

A person's religion, mother tongue, "the way you draft a message to your friend on social media" have all become points of data politicians are keen to get their hands on, according to political strategist Rutwik Joshi, who is working with at least a dozen unnamed lawmakers on their re-election campaigns this election.

And India’s combination of high smartphone take-up and lax regulations allowing private companies to sell data mean that most political parties have gathered "the data to do everything" - even down to knowing “what you are eating today", he claims.

The question is, why do they care?

Put simply, says Mr Joshi, this level of information can predict the vote - "and these predictions usually never go wrong".

But perhaps the bigger question is: why should you care?

Microtargeting - described by Privacy International as the use of personal data “to target you with information and adverts to an unprecedented degree of personalisation” - is not new when it comes to elections.

But it was in the wake of former US President Donald Trump’s 2016 win that it really hit the headlines.

Back then, political consultancy Cambridge Analytica was credited with helping him to victory using data sold by Facebook to profile people and send them pro-Trump content. The firm denied these allegations but suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix.

In 2022, Meta agreed to pay $725m (£600m) to settle a class action lawsuit over a data breach linked to Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018
Cambridge Analytica was credited with helping Trump to victory using data sold by Facebook [Getty Images]

It left people questioning whether the adverts they had seen had swayed their votes. Countries around the world were concerned enough about the impact on democracy that they swung into action.

In India, a Cambridge Analytica affiliate said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress party were its clients - which both denied.

The country's then IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also warned of action against the company and Facebook if it misused data of Indian citizens.

But there has since been little to stop micro-targeting of voters, data and security researcher Srinivas Kodali says.

"Every other election commission - like in the UK and Singapore - they all tried to understand the role of data and micro targeting in elections, they created certain forms of checks and balances, which is what normally an election commission should be doing, but we are not seeing that happen in India," he says.

In India, the problem is compounded because it's "a data society that was planned and built by the government without any safeguards", Mr Kodali says.

Indeed, there are some 650m smartphones users in the country - all boasting apps which could potentially share their data with a third party.

But you don't necessarily need a smartphone to be vulnerable: one of the biggest holders of personal data is the government itself – and even it has been selling personal information to private companies.

“The government built large databases of citizens, shared it with the private sector,” Mr Kodali says.

This has all left citizens vulnerable to increased surveillance with little control over what information remains private, warns Prateek Waghre, executive director at the digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation.

An women scanning her eyes during an Aadhaar registration process in Guwahati, Assam, India on October 8, 2018
India has built the world's largest biometric ID database - the Aadhaar scheme [Getty Images]

Meanwhile, a data protection law passed by the government last year is yet to be implemented, experts say. The lack of rules is an issue, says Mr Kodali.

"It's like the wild, wild west - except on the internet."

And the result of all of this available data? As Mr Joshi puts it, India entered the election year as "the biggest possible data mine in the world right now".

The thing is, no one is doing anything illegal, says Mr Joshi.

" I am not asking [the app], 'Give me mobile numbers of how many users you have and all the contact numbers of those users as well'. But I can ask, 'Are people eating veg or non-veg in your area?'" he explains.

And the apps are able to hand over that data – because the user gave them permission.

"For example, there are 10 different Indian apps in your mobile phone - you have given access to your contacts, to your gallery, to your mic, to your speakers, to your location, including the live location," Mr Joshi, whose company, Neeti I, has been using data to understand voter behaviour patterns in particular constituencies, says.

And it is this data – along with data collected by party workers - which is then used to help decide who the candidate should be, where the candidate's wife should go to do a puja or aarti (offer prayers), what kind of speeches they should give - even what to wear.

But does this level of targeting really work to change people’s mind? That remains unclear.

Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi (C) waves after offering prayers on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi on May 14, 2024, during the country's ongoing general election
Data collected helps strategists decide where candidates should go, what kind of speeches they should give - even what to wear [Getty Images]

But campaigners say on a basic level, it is a violation of people’s privacy. Extrapolating it further, having this level of detail could be used against people in the future.

"Just the fact that it is happening is problematic." says Pratik Waghre, executive director at the digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation.

"What we've seen is that there often doesn't seem to be a clear distinction between how data is being handled when someone is beneficiary of a government scheme and how that information is then being used by that particular political party which happens to be in power in a particular state or at a national level to then use that to micro target people with campaign messages."

The law also allows the government and government bodies to exempt themselves from vast sections on its discretion. It also has the powers to process, use or share this personal data with third parties.

Mr Waghre fears future administrations could take it a step further.

"It can also be: ‘Let's collectively see who's supporting us and only give them the benefits’.”

Customers interact with the staff of Realme showroom store at Karol Bagh in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday, May 31, 2022
India’s combination of high smartphone take up and lax regulations mean that most political parties have gathered "the data to do everything" [Getty Images]

The use of such data also comes against the backdrop of India's larger misinformation problem, Mr Kodali says. And when combined with the amount of data on offer, it is a real problem.

"When you talk about artificial intelligence, targeted advertisements, micro targeting of voters - a lot of this falls under the idea of computational propaganda," he explains. "Questions of this were raised heavily during the 2016 Trump election, where this election is considered as something that was influenced by foreign actors."

Mr Kodali says use of data and technology in election campaigns must be regulated just like money and ad spending currently is in order to keep elections fair.

“If you have one or few set of political parties or groups with access to these technologies gaming elections, they may be free but they will stop looking fair,” he warns.

BBC in-depth India election coverage