New research has found that people suffering 'technostress' often spend longer on social media if under pressure. File photo: Reuters / Dado Ruvic/ Illustration

Asian political leaders have been quick to distance themselves from scandal-hit voter profiling firm Cambridge Analytica, but many countries will remain plum targets for unethical data mining activities due to high social media growth, regulatory gaps and a tradition of electoral abuses.

British-based Cambridge Analytica has been accused of improperly using information obtained from Facebook users to influence the outcome of elections in scores of countries. American authorities are now investigating what role it played in Donald Trump’s 2016 US presidential campaign.

The company says it has been active in Malaysia and Australia, as well as Brazil, Kenya and Mexico, and plans to expand into China. Cambridge Analytica had and has closed offices in Malaysia and Australia, but its parent, SCL group, maintains websites that offer services in other Asian countries.

Former Cambridge Analytica executives have said the company exaggerates its influence and has not made the market inroads that it claims. Most disclosures on its activities are based on an undercover report by Channel 4 television in the United Kingdom, which have not been independently verified.

Chief executive officer Alexander Nix told the Channel 4 reporter — who posed as a “fixer for a wealthy client hoping to get candidates elected in Sri Lanka” — that the company had “a web of shadowy front companies”, including charities and activist groups, that it used to influence elections.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix during the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, November 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Pedro Nunes

Proxy organizations were set up to feed untraceable messages into social media sites that were negative to particular candidates, while information favoring their own client was fed “into the bloodstream to the internet.”

Cambridge boasted that it was able to swing the 2016 election for Trump by securing the “40,000 votes” he needed in three states, despite having more than three million fewer votes overall than rival Hillary Clinton.

“We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign and our data informed all the strategy,” Nix said in the series of Channel 4 interviews.

Executives at the firm also said they used “a web of shell companies to disguise their activities in elections in Mexico, Malaysia and Brazil, among various countries where they have worked to sway election outcomes.”

There is no evidence that Cambridge or SCL have directly meddled in elections in Asia, but local subsidiaries have certainly been busy in Malaysia and India while its lobbyists have courted Australian politicians.

A man wheels storage crates from the building that houses the offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London, Britain, March 20, 2018. Reuters/Henry Nicholls

CA Political, an offshoot of Cambridge Analytica, supported Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition in Kedah state during the 2013 general election, with “a targeted messaging campaign highlighting their improvements since 2008”, according to a statement on CA Politica’s website.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who chairs BN, has denied his government ever worked with Cambridge Analytica or SCL, but suggested they may have been used by Mukhriz Mahathir, son of former prime minister and current opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad, who ran under BN’s banner in Kedah at the time.

Mukhriz became the state’s chief minister in 2013 but was later sacked from the party and helped set up a new faction, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which will oppose BN as part of an opposition coalition in the election due later this year.

Najib’s office said in a statement released on Tuesday: “The SCL Group country representative today confirmed to the government that Cambridge Analytica’s advice on the 2013 general election was provided personally to Mukhriz Mahathir, PPBM Deputy President.”

SCL’s country representative at the time was Azrin Zizal, the director of CL’s Southeast Asian division, who was also formerly Mukhriz’s media officer. Mukhriz, who says he had never heard of Cambridge Analytica, claims Zizal had ceased being his media officer by the time he was Kedah’s chief minister.

Mukhriz Mahathir speaks during an Anti-Kleptocracy rally at Padang Timur, Petaling Jaya on October 14, 2017. Photo: Nur Photo via AFP/Muhammad Shahrizal

India’s two biggest political movements, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and opposition Indian National Congress, are both reported to have been in talks with Cambridge Analytica and its local partner ahead of national elections scheduled for next year.

SCL India, a joint venture between SCL group and India’s Ovleno Business Intelligence, insists they are clients. SCL India claims to be active in 10 Indian states and says it employs 300 permanent staff and 1,400 consultants for “political campaign management” activities, which include social media strategies, election campaign management and mobile media management.

Himanshu Sharma, the vice president of SCL India, states on his LinkedIn profile that the company has “successfully managed four general election campaigns for the BJP”, including the 2014 poll that the party won. BJP and Congress have both denied using SCL or any of its affiliates.

Meanwhile, Australian politicians have said they met with Cambridge executives but decided not to use its services. They included the then-minister for cyber-security, Dan Tehan, whose office confirmed that he attended a private dinner with company representatives last year.

Cambridge opened an Australian office in 2015 but it was never used and was finally shut this week. The office was at the home of a former car salesman, Allan Lorraine, who said it was for show.

“Leading up to the Trump campaign, they wanted to appear bigger than they were,” he said.

The company’s activities in Asia may be unethical but it unlikely it has broken any laws. There are no restrictions on the use of data by politicians and victims of data mining would have difficulty securing compensation unless it could be proved that sensitive details had been poorly protected.

The nameplate of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica is seen in central London, Britain, March 21, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Henry Nicholls

Even in Australia, which has the most advanced data laws in the region, politicians, political parties and their contractors and subcontractors are exempt from the Privacy Act and rules on the use of personal information.

Social media growth in Asia has been so rapid that regulators have had little chance of keeping up. As of January, eight of the 10 countries with the highest social media penetration rates were in the wider region, namely South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and United Arab Emirates, according to Statistics portal Statista.

India had the largest number of Facebook users worldwide (250 million), and Indonesia (230 million) was equal third with Brazil. The Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand were also in the top 10 markets for users.

Data mining companies would find a fertile market in much of Asia if they did want to influence elections: only six of 34 countries surveyed for the 2018 Freedom in the World rankings by Freedom House were rated as having total political rights; 12 countries were ranked as having none at all.

The countries ranked at the bottom were China, Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Bahrain, Tajikistan, United Arab Emirates, Turkmenistan and Tibet – all prime targets for mining social media and other online user information without fear of legal repercussions.