Social media is going to be one big melee towards the end of this year. With elections closing in, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have become the other frontier in Sri Lankan election campaigning, far more potent, effective and yet more vulnerable to manipulation than five years back.
In Sri Lanka, it is not hard to locate a social media expert or an influencing source, what is hard on the other hand is, to locate someone who knows what is going on beyond mere rhetoric and personal opinion. Very difficult task given the narcissistic nature of all these platforms.
In this context my colleague Sanjana Hattotuwa’s column last week was an exception to the norm. He had done some hard yards on the new mobile app launched by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
“V-Can app for Android, aimed at party cadre as a campaigning tool, can geo-locate the phone at all times. Coupled with user details including the mobile and NIC number, the developer can potentially easily track the movements of each phone the app is installed on, 24/7 (because the app can also stop the phone from going to sleep),” he wrote.
A cursory dive into the app shows that the developers seek to obtain some serious data from those who sign on. By end of last week, over 10,000 had downloaded the app on Android devices. Included is permission that the app will have access to all files on USB. It has to be emphasised that none of this is done in secret. When you sign on to the app, you in effect give consent to all these requests. They are included in the permission section in the app’s Google Play page. In fact, it also seeks access to ‘control vibration of the phone.
But my guess is that very few have read these sections. Fewer would have tried to download the app via the Apple Store. If you click on the Apple Store icon on the SLPP page, you keep going back to the same page. So there seems to be no download for I-phones. That however may not be a big issue since bulk of Sri Lanka’s mobile web access is via Android phones.
Interestingly unveiling the app, MP Namal Rajapaksa did say that it would be available for Apple phones as well.
“To create history, the SLPP, will carry out its first e canvassing on Aug. 3 and 4, to digitalize political campaigns in Sri Lanka. For the very first time, we will begin our house to house campaign through a digital platform, through the ‘V Can’ app which will be available on Android and Apple.”
On its Google Play page the developers of the V-Can app say it is a “voter Opinion capture app that (enables) party to take decision(s) based on the ground view of the People. Through the pre-registered users party can conduct Surveys anywhere anytime. And ground operation tracking and activity for great efficiency and security.”
If it is indeed aimed at general voters, some of the features are clearly invasive. Why would a political party need to know the locations of voters’ phones when they are seeking more information on the party. If needed it could be a secondary query, provided at the user’s explicit discretion, not one that is applied across the board.
But some of the app screen shots on the Google Play page give an indication that the app probably is aimed at more ardent party supporters who would use the app for canvassing work. In that case, the app can potentially provide up to date data on registered users going on canvassing and their whereabouts.
As Hattotuwa noted this is not the first app unveiled by a political party in Sri Lanka, but nothing in the past has come anywhere near V-can’s potential in data collection. And this is the first app targeting the 2019 election. More surely are around the corner.
The author is currently pursuing a Masters by Research at CQ University,
Melbourne on online journalism and trauma
Twitter - @amanthap