On the 28th of May, 2018 Bloomberg had reported that the Indian government was looking for a company to analyze social media posts to help boost nationalism and neutralize any “media blitzkrieg by India’s adversaries.” The Request for Proposal (RfP) was released on the 25th of April, 2018 by Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited, a Public Sector Enterprise, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, on behalf of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. Technical Bids were accepted on the 17th of May, 2018. “They are being recruited to understand the pulse of the region and be the eyes and ears for the government,” an official in the Ministry had reportedly told exchange4media, who had first broke the story on the 17th of May, 2018, on the condition of anonymity.
While Section I of the RFP is pretty basic and straightforward, its Section II, specifically the Scope of Work from page 28 of the RfP, has some worrying things, to say the least.
Some of the worrying requirements in the Scope of Work are mentioned below (everything in italics is verbatim from the RfP);
a) “The platform should also support easy management of conversational logs with each individual with capabilities to merge it across channels to help facilitate creating a 360-degree view of the people who are creating buzz across various topics.”
Explanation: Essentially the Minister of Information wants social media activities of anyone who they think is creating a buzz on a topic. Seems innocent enough until you consider a 360-degree view would include email, social media posts, and location access of any individual they think is creating a buzz. The Informational Ministry can keep round the clock surveillance on the social media presence and movements (yes, they even want real-time location access) of individuals they may choose.
b) The tool should have the capability to crawl World Wide Web and social media to monitor and analyze various trends emerging as well as to gauge the sentiments amongst netizens.
c) The tool should act as the guiding tool for Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to understand the impact of various social media campaigns conducted on various schemes run by the Government of India. In addition, the tool should have the capacity to provide inputs to the Ministry on how to improve the reach of various social media campaigns, how to make a particular topic trend and for the overall general improvement of social media campaigns
Explanation: If the Ministry wants a particular tagline or social media message or Government stand to trend, they intend to make sure that they are able to not only get their message across but monitor messages they deem as anti-Government and the citizens’ reactions to the same. They not only want to know when you criticize the Government policies but also want to be able to target their social media campaigns to reach you.
d) The System should provide an NLP engine which can extract sentiment from the above languages as well as context. The system should also allow for training based on custom dataset to provide for better accuracy with time.
Explanation: NLP stands for Natural Language Processing. This would allow the Government AI to not only go through a huge amount of data but pick out the sentiments from the statements.
e) Spatial depiction of brand Buzz (mentions) coming from all over the world on a map with ability to get exact location details.
Explanation: Reread everything before and after this, with this in mind. The Government Information and Broadcasting Department wants to locate people who are creating buzz on certain topics, determine their sentiments from their status, personal messages, emails, and track their exact location. Once this is set up, Government critics and political dissidents will have no place.
f) System should be extensible to allow for CRM integration to help get the 360- degree view of the customer by integrating CRM data with social profiles. Personalize responses basis the customer loyalty and past behaviours.
Example: This is where it gets a bit weird. The RfP keeps using the words “customer”, “CRM”. Is the Government referring to us, who use the Social Media products as Customers for the social media companies? Or referring to us as customers of the Government? CRM, aka Customer Relationship Management, is an approach to manage a company’s interaction with current and potential customers. It uses data analysis about customers’ history with a company to improve business relationships with customers, specifically focusing on customer retention and ultimately driving sales growth. When the entire sentence is read in context with focus on the fact that Government wants “responses on basis of customer loyalty and past behaviour”, it is evident that the Ministry is referring to its citizens as ‘customers’ and wants all citizens rated based on loyalty and past behaviour. This is something similar to the Chinese Government’s Social Rating System by which it rates the “trust” and “loyalty” of its citizens.
g) Measure the effectiveness of hashtag campaigns and compare the performance of brand campaign with competitors by ingesting relevant keywords. Derive deep performance insights to assess success of campaign on real time basis.
Explanation: The Government does NOT have competitors. Political parties have competitors. The Government wants to use tax money and Governmental resources to counter private political parties.
h) The analytics tool should have the capability to categorize social media conversations and other references on the World Wide Web into positive, negative and neutral as viewed/considered by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Explanation: Do note that the “positive’, ‘negative’ and ‘neutral’ criteria would be determined by the Political party in power. Something’s like criticizing the Central Government, which was seen as a patriotic thing to do pre 2014, would now get you tagged as an Anti- National now.
i) Monitor individual social media user/account
Explanation: This speaks for itself.
j) What would be the headlines and breaking news of various channels and newspapers across the globe- could be done with knowledge about their leanings, business deals, investors, their country policies, sentiment of their population, past trends etc. NYT, Economist, Time etc. are good examples, what would be the global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news, how could the public perception be moulded in positive manner for the country, how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses, how can the perception management of India be improved at the world for a how could the media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries be predicted and replied/neutralized, how could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India
Explanation: The Ministry wants to preemptively predict, counter and block out all criticism of the Government and effectively the ruling party. This is a real life example of the Ministry of Truth from the Orwellian dystopia of 1984.
That is not all, the Ministry wants its Platform to look into newspapers across the globe, look into business dealings of foreign newspapers, look into sentiments of foreign populations, and foreign country policies, without heed to legal and diplomatic implications such acts may have.
The entire Request for Proposal can be accessed on the Government’s website here
The Legality of this Request to Proposal:
In a milestone ruling, Supreme Court had on the 24th of August 2017 declared that privacy is a fundamental right in the case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy vs Union of India [WP (Civil) 494 of 2012] for each of its 1.3 billion citizens protected under the country’s Constitution. The Scope of Work and intention of this RfP is clearly in violation of the Supreme Court’s order and Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950. Justice Kaul, in his concurring opinion in the same 9-Judge Privacy judgment, had stated clearly that the Government cannot use personal information of individuals collected without their consent and used for any purpose beyond which they had consented for. Justice Kaul had also stated that restriction of Right to Privacy can only be justified when the data collected is unidentifiable, that is the Government cannot identify or target the privacy of the individual whose data was collected for specific purpose, including National Security (which this is clearly not a case based on the RfP).
While social Media organizations like Facebook, WhatsApp, etc are legally bound to share information with the judiciary and investigative bodies. They are not bound to share personal details of their customers, specifically location related details without clear and specific reason as to why the information is being demanded and its purpose.
The requested features to be available on the Platform (Page 46 of the RfP, 2nd Appendix, Technical Requirements) shows that the Government requires the platform to access Location data, including geo-coordinates, geo-IP of website hosts, and top-level domains like .co.uk (for United Kingdom), .ca (for Canada), .mx (for Mexico) etc. The rest of the technical requirements allude to gathering backlinks, visitor data, author demographics, from different website and social media organizations. Most if not all of which are expressly covered by the General Data Protection Regulations. The GDPR not only provides data protection and privacy to EU citizens but also addresses export of personal data outside EU and European Economic Area. If the Government attempt to have its platform crawl and collect data from users based in EU or websites based in the EU, they would be in clear violation of the GDPR. It is important to note here that the RfP does not state that the platform is restricted to Indian citizens, specifically wants the platform to have language support in French, Chinese, German and Arabic, apart from English and common Indian languages, and repeatedly mentions foreign website like New York Times etc, whose data it would like a predictive analysis feature for.
The Civil Society Organization, Internet Freedom Foundation has already served notice on the new Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Rathore. In an interview published by the Indian Express on the 31st of May, 2018, Mr. Rathore in response to questions about the new “Social Media Department” being created stated that “The government wants to know on various occasions actions taken by the government, what does the public feel about it. And even before this tender was floated the government was analysing public sentiments. All these stories about snooping into the emails are absolutely wrong.” A quick glance at Point 1 a) of the Scope of Work in the RfP clearing shows that the Platform to be created is expected to listen to the standard digital channels listed, which includes emails, along with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Playstore etc, contrary to the claims of Mr Rathore.
With the question of the validity of the Aadhaar Act reserved for Order and the Human DNA Profiling Bill possibly waiting to be introduced in the monsoon session, this RfP does not reflect well on the objectives and intentions of this Government, specifically with its history of animosity towards Right to Information activists, free speech activities, and its political critics among others, who the Political party in power regularly calls as “anti-nationals”.
Recently the London-based elections consultancy Cambridge Analytica Scandal showed how personal data was harvested and used to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote. Widespread collection of personal data of individuals at the access of a Political party allows them to in influence not only elections but general citizen behaviour in the similar manner as to what Cambridge Analytica has been accused of doing.
An important aspect to note in this RfP is that it has been floated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and not by the security wing of the Government like the Intelligence Bureau, which indicates that the purpose of this is to create an information collection and dissemination center which would follow the ideologies of the ruling party and is not for the security of the nation. The Scope of Works as detailed in the RfP cannot be termed to have been created for any other purpose than to monitor citizens, keep them in line with the ruling party, feed them a steady diet of propaganda and focus on people committing thoughtcrimes.
This activities of the proposed “Social Media Department”, when read with the fact that all public data collected under Aadhaar Act is already with the Government, if implemented, would allow the political party in power to stifle any sign of dissent or disapproval of the Government policies as soon as they happen. Worst case scenario, an article like this being written post the activation of the “Social Media Department”, would either never see the light of day or be buried.