What began as a data theft case involving a Hyderabad-based IT company is now snowballing into a full-blown confrontation between the two Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
In a tit-for-tat move, both the states have constituted separate Special Investigation Teams (SITs) to pursue the case on their own terms, having accused each other of stealing the data of their voters. The ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana and its counterpart Telugu Desam Party in AP are engaged in a bitter war of words over what has now emerged as a scandal reminiscent of the infamous Cambridge Analytica case that shook the world last year.
At the heart of the controversy is the allegation that the Hyderabad-based IT Grids (India) Private Limited had illegally mined and misused the personal details of Andhra Pradesh voters while developing a mobile app for the TDP called ‘Seva Mitra’. Ever since the scandal came to light, following a complaint by a whistleblower from the company, allegations have been flying thick and fast between TDP and its bête noire, YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) and TRS. Meanwhile, the Election Commission sought details from the AP Information Technology Department following a complaint on data theft on March 8.
CEO at large
The company CEO D Ashok, who is in the eye of a storm over allegations of helping the TDP in voter profiling, is still at large. “We will nab him, wherever he is hiding, whether in Amaravathi or in America,” said the Telangana SIT head Stephen Ravindra. The Cyberabad police, who initially probed the case, before handing it over to the SIT, are waiting for a reply from Amazon web services and Google about information on the data breach. The police found that modifications were made to the demographic details of certain individuals in the data and colour photographs were changed soon after the case came to light. The SIT is also seeking the services of ethical hackers to decode the information from the seized computers.
“Interestingly, data related to Telangana has also been found. We will probe how they got Telangana data and what was the need for it. We have suspicion that they may have manipulated it,” said Raveendra, who is the Inspector General of Police (West Zone). He also asserted that the Telangana police has the jurisdiction to probe the case.
While the TDP government in Andhra is contemplating taking legal measures, alleging that the party data was stolen by Telangana state police, the Hyderabad police commissioner, Anjani Kumar, said that there was evidence to show that the names of voters who did not support the TDP may have been deleted, based on information from the mobile app used by the party.
The Telangana government has constituted a nine-member SIT to probe the case. In a counter move, the AP government has set up a nine-member SIT headed by Additional Director General of Police and Transport Commissioner N Bala Subramanyam. A case has also been registered in Guntur district based on a complaint by the state minister K Kala Venkat Rao, who is also president of the AP unit of TDP. He alleged that a conspiracy was hatched between YSRCP leaders and some senior police officials of Telangana to steal data belonging to the TDP.
The AP Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu alleged a “BJP-TRS-YSRCP conspiracy” to steal the data and defame his party. On the other hand, YSRCP president YS Jagan Mohan Reddy alleged that the confidential details of the residents of Andhra voters like the Aadhaar and bank accounts were available with the private company and sought a multi-agency probe to get to the bottom of the scandal.
The Hyderabad police had on March 2 registered a case against the company and conducted searches at its office based on a complaint by a data analyst. The complainant alleged that the company misused personal information and sensitive data of Andhra voters through the ‘Seva Mitra’ app.
Another case was registered following a complaint alleging that several names of persons staying in Hyderabad, but are natives of Andhra Pradesh, were deleted from the voter list. Meanwhile, the Andhra police have alleged that the YSRCP leaders and Telangana police officials conspired to “engineer en-masse requests” for deletion of names from the voters’ list, which was established by several applications being generated from same IP addresses.
A much more serious fallout of the data theft was that TDP activists were allegedly given the task of identifying the non-TDP voters so that their names can be deleted from the electoral rolls based on voter profiling. There is a clear link between the misuse of data and deletion of voters’ names in AP, as reflected by an unusual spurt in the number of online applications submitted to the Election Commission for deletion of voters from the electoral rolls.