Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Light Theesko :Voter profiling- Will the Election Commission wake up?

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in December 2021, when Parliament passed the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 with hardly any debate in both Houses, not many would have realized the grave implications of the far-reaching measure.The Bill seeks to amend provisions of the Representation of People’s Act, 1950 and Representation of People’s Act, 1951 for linking of Aadhaar data with electoral rolls, among other things.

The Centre had justified the linkage saying it would be ‘voluntary not mandatory’ and that the proposal to link Aadhaar with Voter IDs had come from the Election Commission of India and reports of the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Union Law Minister Kiren Rijijuclaimed that the Bill satisfied the three conditions laid down in the Puttuswamy judgement for legitimately infringing on the right to privacy of citizens.

“In Puttuswamy case, Supreme Court has clarified that any infringement of privacy must have a basis in a statute, there must be legitimate state interest and that the test of proportionality must be satisfied…that is being done in this case. The test of proportionality is satisfied because the electoral officer will only use it (Aadhaar) to establish the identity of the persons…the database will be with the Election Commission of India and will not be in the public domain.”

Still, burgeoning fears over voter profiling are not unfounded. The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued notice to the Centre and others on a Special Leave Petition filed by Srinivas Kodali, an engineer from Hyderabad, alleging that the ECI has indulged in ‘voter profiling’ by deploying an ‘undisclosed software’ to link voter records to Aadhaar.

Kodali had earlier approached the Telangana High Court, but his PIL plea was dismissed. According to him, the ECI has permitted state governments to access and make copies of voter records. “ECI has effectively created a surveillance…sensitive information on voters including religion, caste, tribe, ethnicity, language, records of entitlement, income, and medical history is now linked to voter information”.This will allow political actors to segment people into ‘interest groups’ and either selectively target or ignore them from the electoral process, thereby interfering with free and fair conduct of election.

The petitioner also alleged that ECI unilaterally deleted 46 lakh entries from the electoral rolls of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in 2015 to ‘purify’ the electoral list.

Aadhaar is not proof of the right to vote. Nor is it proof of citizenship. Under the Representation of Peoples’ Act, only citizens who are residents of India have the right to vote. How can one legitimize linking Aadhaar and Voter ID? Replies to RTI queries have revealed that 80 million fake or fraudulent Aadhaar numbers were detected in 2014-15.

Previous attempts to use Aadhaar to ostensibly clean up or purify databases of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Public Distribution System have resulted in mass disentitlement. For instance, a study from Jharkhand found that 90 per cent of ration cards cancelled as ‘bogus’ during Aadhaar linking between 2016 and 2018 were real.

Numerous failures have been exposed in Aadhaar linkage and biometric authentication. Fingerprints do not work for many people, especially older people and those who labour with their calloused hands, while facial authentication is inaccurate and error prone. Linkage of Aadhaar and Voter ID would only enlarge scope for increased surveillance, disenfranchisement based on identity, targeted advertisements, and commercial exploitation of sensitive private data.

In 2019, the Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed the disastrous impact that deep and invasive voter profiling had on individuals and on democracies. Cambridge Analytica had harvested private profile data from tens of millions of Facebook users. It downloaded key demographic data from the user’s profile, including names, locations, birthdays, genders – as well as their Facebook ‘likes’. The same data was captured for each of the user’s friends.The company then pitched it as dataset encompassing over 40 million Americans! Technology makes it possible. Such profiling has revolutionized the world of advertising.

The ECI must not allow political parties to tap tech titans for dragging voters into it.
Political parties are known to collect for deliberate misuse sensitive personal information about voters such as income, ethnicity, religious affiliation and political beliefs without their knowledge or consent.

In the United Kingdom, an investigation launched following the Cambridge Analytica scandal uncovered “a disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy.” It was found that Cambridge Analytica had aggregated Facebook users’ personal information without their consent for use in political campaigns. In the UK, it was used to send micro-targeted information to voters.

Dissemination of accurate voter profiles created through big data applications is a major challenge to which the ECI has not woken up yet.The poll panel can, if it wants, prevent misuse of money in the polling area by deploying preventive surveillance and action teams. What about misuse of money by parties that engage big data companies to create accurate voter profiles for bombarding voters with bots-assisted targeted information?Wouldn’t that be a great shift from booth-capturing days of yore to bot-capturing days ahead?

The Madras High Court had asked the ECI to investigate allegations that the Bharatiya Janata Party illegally used Aadhaar data of voters in Puducherry for making political gains in the 2021 Assembly election. Homework nahin kiya kya?

The Supreme Court has previously declared the linking of Aadhaar card with a cash instrument like bank account as ‘deprivation of property’ and therefore unconstitutional.
Just connect the dots and you can arrive at a frightening scenario: Voter ID is linked to Aadhaar; most likely, it would be linked to a mobile phone, which is a window to your persona on social media platforms. Social media is linked to algorithms that harvest data to make the most of user interests/views. As of now, there is no fool-proof data protection law in India to regulate users, hosts and owners of social media platforms. So, voter profiling, selective exclusion, targeted campaigns, and bot bombardment are not going to have unintended consequences.

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