The Unique Identification Authority of India, which manages the Aadhaar database of more than one billion Indians, not only wants to monitor the coverage of Aadhaar in the news media, it also wants to trawl through social media conversations to gauge sentiments about the biometrics-based 12-digit identification number. It hopes to use this information to identify “detractors” and “influencers” and run campaigns to “neutralise” the “negative sentiments” on the social media.

The Authority issued a bid document on July 18, seeking to hire a social media agency that will employ “online reputation management” and “social listening” tools to monitor and influence conversations related to Aadhaar on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This is separate from the bid document issued on July 19 to hire a media monitoring agency, which will track all national and regional newspapers, news channels and websites for Aadhaar-related coverage, as reported in Business Standard on Friday.

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The scope of the social media agency, as described in the July 18 document, is wider than the media monitoring agency when it comes to monitoring social media. It will segregate Aadhaar-related conversations into “problematic and non-problematic” categories and highlight the “incidences” that may have a “negative impact on the Aadhaar brand”. The agency will provide weekly “Online Reputation Management Reports” to UIDAI, which will have details of “top detractors, top influencers and the net sentiment related to Aadhaar.”

Excerpt from the request for proposal for social media agency floated by the UIDAI on July 18.

“This monitoring activity shall extend to social media platforms, websites (news and others), blogs/ forums, etc. so that issues related to Aadhaar can be understood,” the tender document states. “The tools shall be capable of doing a sentiment analysis of all such conversations and flag any discrepancy in sentiments’ trend. Additionally, the Service Provider will draft a plan to work out and neutralise negative sentiments.”

Excerpt from the request for proposal for social media agency floated by the UIDAI on July 18.

Challenge in Supreme Court

The revelation of UIDAI’s interest in monitoring social media conversations with the intent of influencing user sentiments comes at a time when the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s plan to create a social media monitoring hub faces a challenge in the Supreme Court on the grounds of privacy violation.

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Through the Social Media Monitoring hub, the government wanted to monitor the social media accounts of individuals to gauge their opinions about government policies, create “360 degree profiles” of them and target them with personalised messages to alter their opinions. A public interest litigation in the Supreme Court has challenged this on the ground that the government cannot do so without obtaining the consent of the user whose data it would use.

Unlike the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s tender, the UIDAI’s bid document for hiring a social media agency does not specifically mention the monitoring of individual accounts, but it is not clear how an agency would identify “detractors” or “influencers” without tracking individual accounts.

UIDAI did not respond to Scroll.in’s specific query on whether the authority would be monitoring individual accounts and how this would be done without compromising their privacy.

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Concerns over the misuse of social media data have acquired momentum globally over the past few months, ever since it was discovered that the UK-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had mined through the social media data of individuals, without their informed consent, to use it for political campaigning. The company is alleged to have analysed the social media posts of individuals to create their psychological profiles, which it used for targeted messaging to influence their voting patterns.

Is monitoring already taking place?

This is not the first time the UIDAI has sought to hire a social media agency. It invited bids in 2016 for an agency that would “monitor individual social media user/account” and categorise sentiments related to Aadhaar into “positive, neutral or negative.” The outcome of the 2016 exercise is not known. The 2016 document explicitly mentioned the monitoring of individual accounts.

AB Pandey, the chief executive officer of UIDAI did not respond to Scroll.in’s calls and text messages, seeking a clarification on whether a social media agency had been hired in the past and whether such monitoring was already taking place.

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However, responding to Scroll.in’s email queries earlier, UIDAI said it has employed a media monitoring agency since 2011. “By monitoring all kinds of media, be it print, electronic or social media, UIDAI keeps abreast the problems and grievances of people with respect to Aadhaar and takes necessary and appropriate remedial measures for redressal and resolution,” it said.

It added: “(In) media monitoring it monitors only the information which is already in public domain and no private information is being collected or monitored.”

Apar Gupta, a lawyer in Delhi who works on digital privacy, however, pointed out that the hard distinction between the concepts of public and private had been negated by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court in a judgement on the right to privacy on August 24, 2017.

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Justice K Kaul, one of the nine judges, said in the judgement: “Thus, for e.g., if the posting on social media websites is meant only for a certain audience, which is possible as per tools available, then it cannot be said that all and sundry in public have a right to somehow access that information and make use of it.”

Gupta argued: “For the government to scrape information from a person’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, even if they are public, conflicts with their autonomy that such information will be catalogued by the government and placed within a database. Most immediately it will make people self-censor themselves out of fear.”

The 2018 bid document is silent on whether the consent of social media users will be taken before monitoring their conversations. It is also not clear on how the misuse of such data can be prevented.

India does not yet have a law to ensure data protection or to define the process of obtaining consent from individuals before using their data. A government-appointed committee made recommendations on Friday, which some legal experts decried as a blow to the idea of consent and the right to privacy.