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Jane Fountain featured in the Times of India

by Kim AroraTNN | Mar 24, 2017, 22:13 IST India will become a serious player in e-governance: Jane Fountain

Jane Fountain is a professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work focuses on information technology, governance and policy. She is currently a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government. Visiting the capital recently, she spoke to TOI about the impact of technology on government services, privacy, and surveillance. Excerpts:

Q: UK experimented with unique biometric ID system and scrapped it. India is currently deploying it with Aadhaar. How practical or secure do you think it is to have biometric IDs for government service delivery?

A: Countries vary in their receptivity and level of comfort with biometric identifiers. Many people are using them now on their smartphones. If we balance the need for and the right to privacy with the need for and the right to security...One way to be absolutely clear about authentication is to use biometrics. I have come to this view after many, many years. I think it is difficult -- I am not an expert on this -- I think it is difficult to crack biometrics.

Q : India doesn't have a privacy law at the moment. Can any country or government in today's day and age afford to not have a privacy legislation?

A: No. India is obviously a serious player on the globe, and will become an even more serious player in e-governance in being a leader providing advice. So it has a responsibility to embody the whole range of digital activities and Internet policy. Privacy is a key issue. And a place to start is simply benchmarking. Look at the EU privacy rules.

Q: Use of technology in government services is an enabler, but can also be a barrier in regions lacking in resources. How can a government balance that?

A: What governments do in developing countries, and also in my own country -- in libraries or civic centers, you can make technology available to people through tech cafes. You can readily see that is better than nothing. But the idea that someone will be able to sit for hours and surf the web and be engaged in that way is a little bit unrealistic. Nevertheless, the number of people who have mobile phones is extraordinary. So it's an empirical what level of poverty will you not expect to see smartphones? Or not smartphones, even relatively simple flip phones? Because people can do quite a bit with text messaging etc.

Q: With increased digitisation of government services and citizen records, surveillance becomes easy. How do you see that playing out globally?

A: This is where rule of law becomes incredibly important. The tools are certainly there to do an enormous amount of surveillance in terms of breadth and depth. What we need are laws that prohibit certain activities. Most democracies have those laws but it has now become a debatable question. For example, should a government be able to do surveillance if a terrorist threat or other types of threats seem imminent? The argument against that is that one can still very quickly get a search warrant if needed. It doesn't take much time to go get authorisation for wire-tapping or to search phones. So countries need to have a very good set of laws. I don't know about India but in the US there are a number of NGOs that are always watching these issues. We need those people. These are trained lawyers who help write policies and legislation. They have the standing and the ability to have a voice at the highest levels. Everything people do on Facebook, Google etc is used by those companies in powerful ways. Governments have found it relatively easy to go to (such) private sector sources to get even better information that you may get by tapping someone's phone.

Q: We saw with the Snowden revelations how transnational politics get affected with digital surveillance. How will this impact international relations going forward?
A: In the area of nuclear proliferation and diplomacy we have a very careful gradation of activities and what they mean. An ambassador will have a meeting of a certain type and that will send a signal, and everyone in the community will know what that means. Right now, we don't have that lexicon for cybersecurity. Countries that have either sanctioned or chosen to ignore cybercriminal activity that crosses borders...are going to have to take responsibility for that activity in their own country. People are still physically somewhere even when they are acting across borders. The law needs to catch up. I don't want to sound completely optimistic...we need to develop rules of the road and international understandings and expect that countries that want to be respected will follow those norms and agreements.

Q: Estonia seems to be far ahead of other countries when it comes to implementing e-governance projects. Why?
A: Estonia is a remarkable its independence in 1994, has taken that quite seriously as an important part of its history. Estonia is also a very small country, about the size of Rhode there is a certain advantage because you have elites and decision makers who tend to know one another or have worked with each other which makes it easier to forge agreements, policies, and plans and move them forward. Estonia is also very aware of their proximity and relationship to Russia and their role in the Baltics. As part of their expression of democracy, the Internet and web are born around the same time as an independent Estonia. They took up the ideas of internet and information freedom and wrote them into their identity. The level of trust in the country means they can use their private banking system with their e-governance system to do some things that other countries might feel they cannot do. That's an asset. They've had some great IT minds and companies that have been of help.


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