Big Data is the New Big Brother

‘Cambridge Analytica will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign!’

A controversy has recently erupted in the United States when it was revealed that Facebook had shared – for a Big Price surely! – personal data about US citizens that it holds in its archives with the UK firm Cambridge Analytica (CA).

CA is alleged to have used this minefield of data to influence voter behaviour in the US election. This new revelation adds to the already complicated investigation that is still going on there about Russian involvement too, through hacking, which is supposed to have favoured the election of Donald Trump as President. There may be some measure of truth in this claim from the fact that following the re-election of Putin – for the fourth time – as President of Russia recently, Donald Trump called him, and profusely congratulated him against the written advice of his advisers.

Now controversy has also erupted in India, when a cadre of CA who was deponing at the House of Parliament in London let out that CA had helped the Congress Party in an earlier election campaign. Which, of course, the Congress has denied. Nevertheless, it seems that more evidence is emerging about CA’s input according to Congress’s electoral requirements.

“CA Political is not shy about asserting that it ‘will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign’. That is because, as in the case of the US, it has ‘actionable insights’, by which it means that ‘We have up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million individual American consumers. By combining these data assets with your own customer data as well as a proprietary research instrument, we build custom target audiences, which enable us to engage, persuade, and motivate individuals to act’. And CA’s ‘team of PhD data scientists, expert researchers, and seasoned political operatives have produced decisive results for campaigns and initiatives throughout the world’…”


All this gives a new dimension to future electoral landscapes and outcomes, and poses a risk in the sense that segmentation of voters and influencing their behaviour can destabilize a country by the sourcing party, e.g. Congress in India preying on divisive tendencies in the electorate.

Ought we to be apprehensive about a similar involvement in Mauritius as well in future elections? Definitely something to be vigilant about.

According to its website, CA has two major divisions: Commercial and Political. Both use a combination of Big Data, Behavioural Psychology and Targeted Engagement to effect Behaviour Change. While in the commercial sector this may be relatively innocuous in the sense that individual decisions about consumption affect only the individual and his immediate entourage (family), in the political domain there may be seismic shifts in policy matters that could be inimical to the population or specific segments of the population.

After all, in its presentation, CA Political is not shy about asserting that it ‘will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign’. That is because, as in the case of the US, it has ‘actionable insights’, by which it means that ‘We have up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million individual American consumers. By combining these data assets with your own customer data as well as a proprietary research instrument, we build custom target audiences, which enable us to engage, persuade, and motivate individuals to act’ (italics added).

And CA’s ‘team of PhD data scientists, expert researchers, and seasoned political operatives have produced decisive results for campaigns and initiatives throughout the world’ (italics added). We are warned!

A foreign firm with no intimate knowledge of local context and hired by the party with money to influence the outcome of election in your country – a scary prospect. No wonder there is such a huge hue and cry that is going on, and that is not likely to die down any time soon by the looks of it.

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Audit Report: Wastage, misuse and misappropriation of public funds

Every year when the Audit Report comes out it is the same litany of colossal wastage, misuse and misappropriation of public funds. Successive Auditors have shown that they do a thorough job with rigorous professionalism, and make valid recommendations to improve the utilisation of public funds.

Nothing is heard from government afterwards about the implementation of these recommendations. The reason is not far to seek: they are not heeded. If they were, logically the subsequent reports would have been less damning. They have not been, which proves the point.

In whose interest are these recommendations sidelined altogether? With the publication of the latest report, the opposition has a golden opportunity to seek clarifications and explanations through a series of PNQs about the irregularities revealed in it. It should make this a matter of the utmost urgency.

These are dozens of irregularities that have been identified in virtually all government departments. Obviously no government so far has given enough attention to tracking these irregularities with the seriousness that is required. If this had been done over the years, the savings would no doubt have amounted to billions of rupees, money that could have been utilized to fund so many programmes.

In all the departments the problems identified are recurrent and practically of the same type year-in year-out: failure to respect specifications in tendering procedures; undue delay in or failure of implementation of projects; as a result, cost overruns that amount to tens of millions and which in some case almost double the cost of the initial estimates; equipments that turn out to be inappropriate after they have been ordered; breakdown of equipment and inadequate or non-existent means of maintenance; recommendations made in construction projects that have not been followed, which lead to more expense to be spent on costly repairs; sums of money that cannot be accounted for – in the present Report, for example, Rs 29 Million of unaccounted pensions paid out!!, which prompts the legitimate question: where has the money gone!?

It is past high time for the government to take the bull by its horns and address the issue of optimal usage of public funds by more rigorous monitoring at every step right from the start, so as to alleviate the burden of the already suffering public.

There was a winning formula for the December 2014 victory. Which winning formula will cut through the Gordian knot that plagues every Audit Report?

 

* Published in print edition on 30 March 2018

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