The Population Registry is an ambitious goal of the e-Government

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According to Ajith Perera – the recently appointed Minister of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology, there are “ambitious” plans to bring the Government together under an e-Government. As per the minister, the first step towards this would be to create a population registry of all Sri Lankan citizens.

Dubbed the “Mother of all databases”, this would contain all the information about the population of Sri Lanka. The database would be available for all Government ministries to share data. Of course this does present a massive security risk.

Creating a safer, more secure Sri Lanka

But to his credit, the Minister addressed the need to take stronger action against cyber threats and data privacy. He stated that draft copies of the proposed Data Protection Act and Cyber Security Act are ready. He further added that these acts would be shared with the relevant shareholders in order to get their feedback.

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New and/or improved data protection and cybersecurity acts are in development in Sri Lanka (Image Credits: Cuatrecasas Blog)

The Cyber Security Act is all about protecting you and your organization from malware and unwanted programs. For example, if a hacker inserts a virus into your network, you can use the Cyber security act to take legal action against them.

The Data Protection Act, however is all about protecting your data. For example, if someone steals your private information and is holding it ransom, or someone is requesting to access your private data, this act would protect you and give access to the data only after you have authorized it.

Once everything is agreed upon, the acts would be passed in Parliament. While these claims seem bold, the bolder claim is that all this is slated to be done within three months. A positive step, no doubt but also quite ambitious.

A lookback at Sri Lanka’s Digital Projects

According to the minister, “the e-Government would bring the entire Government under one umbrella, virtually sharing data among themselves”. He goes on to share that this initiative will end the use of isolated information by different Government bodies. Yet, Sri Lanka has few success stories with e-Government projects.

One example of a successful project is the Digital Health Project. We first saw this in action back in 2017. When our Mazin – our editor cut his hand, it made his visit to the hospital a smooth one. Yet, even this is a mixed success as it too faces criticism when it comes to data security.

The Population Registry is an ambitious goal of the e-Government 1
The Digital Health Project was an example of Government digital that worked. But even this was a mixed success.

On the other end of the spectrum is the e-Government initiative that we first saw back in 2018. When announced, it looked like it would revolutionize how the Government of Sri Lanka would share information. But in practice, it wasn’t as digital as promised, and generally looked like something that was developed in a haphazard manner.

And this has been the trend of the Government’s attempts at going digital. For proof, we only need to look at the Google Loon Fiasco. What started off as an ambitious hopeful project, fell apart amidst a series of controversies, scandals, and overall confusion.

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Google Loon was perhaps the most controversial digital project by the Government of Sri Lanka (Image Credits: Time)

Nonetheless, this hasn’t deterred Minister Ajith Perera from digitization. The minister further stated that at the departmental level, multiple programs would be carried out to digitally reform government processes.

Data that’s open, outdated, & insecure

Theoretically, if all goes well, all Government systems will have shared resources. Yet, all of these had one thing in common: they require data. Vast quantities of data that is accurate and relevant. This is where the Open Data initiative comes into play and makes us even more skeptical.

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While there is a multitude of datasets available freely, its horribly outdated

According to the Minister, the population registry would be open to all Government departments to share data. Think of it as open data. Speaking of open data, remember how we wrote that the open data from the Sri Lankan Government is outdated? Well, it’s still outdated in 2019.

You’d think with the Government opting for digitization, it would keep updated datasets. Well, apparently not. Furthermore, when you have a database containing every detail about every single person in the country, you need to make sure this data is safe.

Yet, the truth is no computer system is 100% secure. Even those in the Pentagon have likely been hacked. And it’s true that the “mother of all databases” will have clear benefits. Yet, there is a very real possibility that hackers can steal all this information with ease. And once they do, the damage they can inflict would be enormous.

The Future of the e-Government

As per the 2019 national budget, it has been proposed to allocate Rs. 800 million to digitize government services. Minister Ajith Perera seems to have a bold vision as to how that money should be spent.

To his credit, the idea of introducing a data protection act along with updated legislation around cyber-security is a welcome one. Hopefully, we’ll see a clear draft within 3 months as stated by the Minister. Yet this is merely a first step.

One that should’ve been taken years ago. The same can be said about ensuring government departments can easily share data. Nonetheless, better late than never. So kudos to the government for that. But at the devil lies in the details.

The most important detail being security and privacy. Enacting the right laws is an important step. But ensuring your data is protected is a constant battle that has to be fought every single day. This challenge only becomes more complex when the data of every person in the country is stored in a single database.

Yet, Minister Ajith Perera saying, “I have the advantage of being neither a scientist nor a technologist now,” doesn’t really inspire the confidence to reassure us that we’ll always be at the forefront of this battle.

What are your thoughts on the plans for the E-Government and the proposed security acts? We would love to hear from you.

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