Telangana voters get messages from BJP leader, complaint filed over alleged data leak

Several individuals who received micro-targeted text messages from the BJP asked how the party got access to the Telangana Legislative Council electoral rolls.
Voters showing their voter IDs
Voters showing their voter IDs
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A complaint has been filed with the Cyberabad Cyber Crime police station in Hyderabad over the alleged data leak of 4.48 lakh voters on the electoral rolls of a constituency for the Telangana Legislative Council elections. Several registered voters over the week received a micro-targeted text message from BJP floor leader N Ramachander Rao, and took to social media raising questions about how the party got access to the freshly prepared electoral rolls, the draft for which was released only on December 8.

Voters who had registered from Rangareddy, Hyderabad and Mahabubnagar districts, the graduates constituency of Telangana Legislative Council, were the ones who received the texts. Srinivas Kodali, a researcher on open data and internet freedom from Hyderabad is one among those who applied to be on the electoral rolls and has approached the police. He has also filed a complaint with the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of the Election Commission of India (ECI) alleging that the data was leaked, and demanded an investigation be carried out.

On December 14, Srinivas received a text message from the BJP leader that read, “I am extremely delighted to inform you that you have been successfully enrolled as a voter on the rolls of the HYD-RR-MBNR graduates MLC constituency. Looking forward to your support and blessings to give me another opportunity to work for a better society.” Similar text messages were sent to several individuals, all of whom had applied to vote in the polls.

These voters said that they had given their phone number to the ECI and not a political party. ”The BJP leader claims in the media that he had taken consent before sending out the text messages. Personally, I haven’t given anyone my consent,” said Srinivas, who in his complaint letter, had accused the ECI of administrative lapse and accused the BJP leader of having obtained the data using fraudulent means.

In his complaint letter, Srinivas stated that he is not registered with the BJP nor does he know the BJP leader personally, nor has he given consent to receive any messages from the leader of his party.

“I believe N Ramachader Rao and the BJP obtained the phone number of voters in Telangana illegally. This data, along with that of several others in Telangana, could have likely been breached from the servers of the office of the CEO where I have registered for the MLC graduate electoral roll. Election infrastructure is critical infrastructure and any breach of these systems is a national security issue,” the complaint letter stated.

The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) official who oversaw the groundwork for the MLC electoral roll preparation has denied that there was any data leak from their end. The GHMC official said, “All data was stored centrally at the office of the Chief Electoral Officer. We have access to only view the data and can’t do anything with it. People have an option to file their applications offline by submitting an application form to the revenue department or to the municipality but most people have chosen to file their applications online.”

The officer added that the GHMC carried out a preliminary enquiry to ensure that the alleged leak did not originate at their end. The ECI is expected to issue their own statement in due time, the officer informed.

“Will the commission investigate how the BJP leader got the MLC voter list? Did this leak happen from the EC office, and why is only BJP having this data?” asks Srinivas while raising concerns over a political party micro-targeting voters. “For an Assembly or Lok Sabha election, you get mass calls and SMSes which are sent to everyone in a city. But this is micro-targeting of voters. The number of voters is small for the MLC elections, so those who apply will mostly vote. The number of votes that decide the election will also be small and hence it makes sense to micro profile these voters,” he reasons.

N Ramachander Rao was unavailable for comment. The leader, however, told Times of India and The New Indian Express that the data was collected by BJP party and RSS workers and claimed that consent was taken at the time of data collection. The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer is yet to respond to email queries.

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