Hyderabad voters get targeted messages from parties seeking votes

While voters’ details are put out in the public domain by the ECI, many residents wondered how parties had accessed their phone numbers to send WhatsApp and SMS messages.
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Hours before the silent period set in for the 2023 Telangana Assembly elections, several voters in Hyderabad received messages on WhatsApp or SMS, asking them to vote for their local candidate. They were targeted specifically to the voter, mentioning their name, voter ID, and polling booth, while appealing to them to vote for a particular candidate of a particular party. Similar messages were received by multiple voters in Hyderabad across constituencies and from candidates of different parties. 

These details themselves do not constitute a privacy violation – electoral rolls with these exact details are put out by the Election Commission of India months before the polling date. As the electoral rolls also mention voters’ house numbers, it enables party workers to show up at voters’ doorstep to canvas for votes. But the concerning aspect here is how the candidates managed to find the phone numbers of their constituents and mapped them to their voter IDs, since unlike Aadhaar, voter IDs are not linked to the individuals’ phone numbers. 

Santhosh (name changed), a Hyderabad resident who votes in the Secunderabad Cantonment Assembly constituency, received an SMS with his EPIC (voter ID) details on the afternoon of Monday, November 28, from the local BJP candidate Ganesh Narayan. “Let’s Vote for Nation! VOTE FOR BJP! Vote for LOTUS. Vote for Sriganesh N,” the broadcast message said, and mentioned the date and time of polling on November 30. 

Several other residents also got similar messages on SMS or WhatsApp from various BRS and Congress candidates as well, in Secunderabad, Uppal, Serilingampally, Malkajgiri, and other constituencies of Hyderabad. Some of these voters have questioned if such targeted messages are a case of data breach, wondering how political parties had traced their phone numbers. 

Did anyone else receive a text like this?
byu/Srihari_stan inhyderabad

While voter profiling has been one of the major concerns surrounding the Union government’s move to link Aadhaar with voter ID, this is not mandatory yet, as the Election Commission of India (ECI) recently reiterated in the Supreme Court. Choosing to link Aadhaar with EPIC could make it easier to map voters’ phone numbers, as they’re linked to Aadhaar. However, Santhosh, as well as two other residents – Shankar from Serilingampally, and Jerin from Uppal – insisted that they had not made any efforts to link Aadhaar with voter ID. 

A political strategist from a prominent political party said that most parties have access to Aadhaar data in the black market where hackers sell such stolen personal data, which could be used to map phone numbers to electoral rolls. Multiple instances of Aadhaar data being breached have come to light over the years. Recently in October, in what was feared to possibly be one of the biggest data leaks in India, details of 81.5 crore Indians such as Aadhaar and passport information along with names, phone numbers and addresses, were put up for sale illegally. The details were purportedly sourced from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) based on COVID tests. 

Two vote-seeking messages, one in the name of Secunderabad BRS candidate T Padma Rao, and another in the name of Uppal BRS candidate Bandari Lakshma Reddy, were sent from Bharat Analytica, a Hyderabad-based political consulting company. The home page of the website, which was up as of November 28 evening, is now down. It is described as an “advertising, technology and political consulting company” offering a “comprehensive range of services, essential for the creation of successful marketing campaigns and a wide range of election management services.”

Gaddam Shravan Kumar Yadav, a “political strategist and analyst” who is one of the people running the firm, told TNM that they provide “end-to-end election management” for their clients with premium technology. He said his company does send out these messages as part of voter outreach, along with sending out voter slips and conducting ‘psychological surveys’. 

Bharat Analytica’s clients include prominent BRS leaders such as Ministers Harish Rao, Talasani Srinivas Yadav and Malla Reddy, BJP leader Eatala Rajender, and others, according to their website. 

Shravan said that it’s the political parties who share voters’ data and phone numbers with them. “We are only service providers. Whatever data we receive, we generate a campaign and push it. The data comes from the parties,” he said, adding that this election, they are working with 26 clients in Telangana from across parties. 

When asked how parties access this data, Shravan said, “Before the election, party workers do door-to-door canvassing based on electoral rolls available in the public domain which includes their home addresses. Here, we have given a provision to add the data.” He said that party workers seek voters’ phone numbers so they can share voter slips, and also to get in touch with eligible beneficiaries of welfare schemes in the future. 

“If a voter is below the poverty line and eligible for schemes such as Dalit Bandhu, 2BHK housing etc., whoever is interested in sharing their contact details to avail such schemes on a later date when it’s feasible, they give this data,” he said, adding that details such as which community they belong to are also sometimes collected. He insisted that this is done on a voluntary basis and that candidates are able to collect data from only about 20-30% of their constituents this way. 

However, multiple Hyderabad residents who spoke to TNM after receiving such a message said they never gave out such information to any such campaign workers or surveyors. Jerin, who votes in Uppal, lives in Mumbai. He said he and his parents received messages from Bharat Analytica asking to vote for BRS candidate Bandari Lakshma Reddy, but none of them are likely to have shared any of their details with any BRS workers. Shankar, who votes in Serilingampally, also said that he did not take part in any such survey. 

When asked how else phone numbers are being traced, if voters aren’t volunteering to share them, Shravan said, “I don’t know. Candidates might have other databases. It could be data from mobile phone companies, there is a lot of marketing communications data available. They might try to map it based on the house numbers from electoral rolls.”

A similar issue arose during the Puducherry Assembly election in 2021, when many residents received SMSes with an invite link to join a BJP constituency-booth level WhatsApp group. While it was alleged that BJP obtained voters’ phone numbers using data from Aadhar cards, the party denied this and said that all such numbers were available in the public domain, and that the party engaged the services of bulk SMS senders by paying them. Hearing a PIL over the matter, the Madras High Court called it an instance of a “serious breach.”

While BJP insisted that the data was collected by its karyakarthas over a long period, the court said it was “completely unacceptable” that party workers could have collected these numbers. The court said such a method should have been used only after obtaining permission from the Election Commission. 

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