TNM exclusive: Another company found selling bulk voter data to Karnataka candidates

With data belonging to at least 6.5 lakh voters compromised, the greatest worry of the ECI is the "micro-targeting" and bribing of voters using phone numbers.
 TNM exclusive: Another company found selling bulk voter data to Karnataka candidates
TNM exclusive: Another company found selling bulk voter data to Karnataka candidates

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Amid growing concerns over voter data theft and manipulation by private companies in the ongoing Karnataka Assembly elections, it has emerged that another dubious private firm in Bengaluru is selling data of lakhs of voters to candidates in the fray. The company, whose owners are yet to be traced, openly advertises on its website that it has sensitive information including mobile numbers and WhatsApp numbers of voters. The company provides login access to potential clients who can then enter the site and buy information and services of their choice for as little as Rs 25,000. The Election Commission of India (ECI) officials are investigating whether the company could have been used to bribe voters by depositing money into their accounts using UPI (Unified Payments Interface). This is the latest voter scam to rock the Karnataka elections. In November last year, TNM and Pratidhvani exposed how a private company called Chilume had collected personal data from lakhs of voters in Bengaluru by posing as Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) officials.

The latest case came to light after an independent candidate, Raju, alerted the ECI when he was approached by the seller. Raju told Srinivas, the officer in charge of enforcing the Model Code of Conduct, about a phone call he received offering to sell voter data for a price. Srinivas then escalated the matter to the police and a complaint was registered on April 24.

Using the login provided to Raju by the private company, TNM entered the portal and made a shocking discovery. The website on its dashboard says it has data of 6.50 lakh voters, including 3,45,089 male, 2,93,000 female and 5,630 other voters. It is not clear whether this is the total data they have or whether this pertains to particular constituencies. According to sources in the Election Commission, what is of concern is that the format of the data on sale is similar to the data stored on ERONET, a government portal with ECI data on voters that only election officials can access. 

A screenshot of voter data on the website

When TNM checked the domain details of the website, we found that it was registered in Delhi in April 2023. All other details about the website have been redacted by the company. 

When you login in to the portal, a message welcomes you. A pop-up message with a barcode to scan and pay, advertises, “Win this election 2023 by getting your assembly data with all voters' mobile numbers @ Rs.25,000 + 500 (Transaction Charge) only. Send your election manifesto through WhatsApp, voice call & SMS to all voters in your assembly. Above said amount remains as a deposit. Election losers can claim their refund of the deposit after the election rules are made liberal.” 

The pop up welcome message  

Sources in the ECI, who spoke to TNM on the condition of anonymity, suspect that the breach of voters' data could have been an inside job or it could have been hacked. "When we inspected the data that the company was trying to sell, we discovered that it was in the same format as the ERONET database that is maintained by the BBMP," an ECI official said. The ERONET stores the Form-6 applications which are used by voters to get enrolled in the electoral list. It has details such as phone number, address and family details of the voter. "In our database, the voters' information is filled into a table with 13 columns. The data that was being sold illegally had the first eight columns which replicate the ERONET format. It looks like somebody just copy-pasted our data onto an Excel sheet," the official said.

The table of data on the fraudulent company’s website has 12 columns including EPIC number, electoral part number, serial number, name, name of other voters in the house, mobile number, age, gender, provision to call, SMS or WhatsApp. The publicly available voters list on the ECI website provides all this information but it does not provide a mobile number or WhatsApp number. 

According to another official, the greatest worry is the "micro-targeting" of voters using the phone numbers. "We suspect that the company could have been involved in making direct UPI transfers to voters as a bribe," the official said.

There are several UPI IDs linked to the website, these lead to various bank accounts in HDFC, ICICI and Axis banks and are all in the name of one person. (TNM has withheld the names).

The portal also offers a wide range of social media engagement options that have been divided under different heads like sending bulk SMS, audio call, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. The company claims that the SMS campaigns will be carried out between 9 am and 8 pm and reports will be published only if one lakh SMSes are sent. The targeted messaging can be done booth-wise in three languages Kannada, Tamil and English, the company advertises. 

TNM also reached out to a few voters enlisted on the website. They confirmed that they are residents of Bangalore South Assembly constituency. One voter said that she received a call from a person who claimed to be a police official. "He said that he wanted to do some verification and he asked about my husband."

Another resident said that he didn't share his contact with anyone. "I don't remember giving my contact to anyone. No one approached me for a survey nor have I filled any forms."

A third resident said that he has been living in Bangalore South for a while now but does not have a voter ID. "I received a call from a political party. They were trying to enrol me on the voter list. They said they will come to verify a few documents but no one has turned up so far,” the resident said. 

The portal also enables the buyer to send audio messages to all voters in one go. The 29 seconds audio file which is uploaded is counted as one call. For WhatsApp messages, the portal offers campaigns to be conducted between 10 am and 7 pm on all working days. For Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn campaigns the portal offers to send Twitter links by selecting the state, constituency, and specific booths. The portal has a separate dashboard for ‘Election day’ with details of booths, polled and unpolled votes. The booth-wise data also has details of the number of votes each booth has and gives a breakup.   

The portal also has a YouTube channel which was started on February 1, 2023, and has nine subscribers. The YouTube channel has only one video which has not been made public, the demo video uploaded is sent to probable customers.

With inputs from Prajwal Bhat and Shivani Kava.

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