Paytm Was Asked For Users’ Data By PMO, Alleges Sting Operation By Cobrapost


Digital payments firm Paytm is at the centre of a controversy over data privacy after a sting operation appeared to suggest that the Vijay Shekhar Sharma-led company was asked to share user data with a political organisation following orders from the Prime Minister’s Office.

What was the operation about?

Investigative journalism portal Cobrapost had come out with a video on Friday in which Paytm’s senior vice-president Ajay Shekhar Sharma is captured on camera saying that he was asked for the user data of stone-pelters in Jammu and Kashmir to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

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Though the video shows Ajay Shekhar Sharma purportedly claiming that the PMO asked for data of users, the video does not mention whether or not Paytm complied with the PMO’s alleged demand. 

As part of its sting operation, Cobrapost sent their reporter Pushp Sharma to Paytm. Posing as a person who wanted to promote books like the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayan on Paytm, Sharma met Sudhanshu Gupta, a vice president in the e-wallet company.

Paytm’s privacy policy states that the company will not sell, share or rent users’ personal information to any third party.

In a statement late on Friday, A Paytm spokesperson said, “There is absolutely no truth in sensational headlines of a video doing rounds on social media…‪Our users’ data is 100% secure and has never been shared with anyone except various law enforcement agencies on request.” 

Cobrapost was also in news for revealing how Hindi daily Dainik Jagran, along with other major media groups had allegedly agreed to dilute stories on Amit Shah and Jay Shah to being in talks over playing Hindutva jingles on radio networks. 

Paytm, run by One97 Communications Ltd, is the second-biggest Indian tech unicorn, after online retailer Flipkart. In January, the company said it was valued around $10 billion after some current and former employees exercised their stock options. 

Paytm counts Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp and China’s Alibaba Group among its key investors. SoftBank had invested $1.4 billion (about Rs 9,000 crore) in Paytm last year. The company has rapidly expanded over the past couple of years.

It also benefited significantly from the government’s motion for demonetisation in November 2016 to ban old high-value banknotes as part of efforts to discourage cash transactions and boost digital payments. 

Political links

The Cobrapost expose was part of a series of videos which purported to show media organisations willing to run a politically-biased campaign.

In Paytm’s case, Ajay Shekhar Sharma was seen speaking to Cobrapost’s Pushp Sharma, who met the senior Paytm executive on the pretext of wanting to sell religious items on the platform. 

Image Courtesy: Cobrapost

The journalist is also shown meeting Paytm company vice-president Sudhanshu Gupta, who acknowledges his political affiliations with the RSS and also talks about how the company purportedly propagates certain types of ‘Hindutva content’ through its app. 

The world is panicked by data breach in recent times

These allegations come in the backdrop of the recent controversy involving social networking giant Facebook, in which personal information of millions of users was leaked to the political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica. That data was allegedly used to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections, raising questions over the handling of user information by tech companies. 

Facebook later revealed that the data breach also affected 5.62 lakh, Indian users. After the scandal broke out, the Indian government had demanded a response from Cambridge Analytica on whether it was engaged to improperly harvest Facebook data on Indian citizens.

Tech companies worldwide are increasingly facing greater scrutiny related to data misuse. On Friday, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect in the European Union. The regulation aims to give people greater control over how their personal data is used. In addition, companies with operations in EU countries will have to follow strict protocols on storing private data and sharing it with third parties. 

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