Digital ID project is ICTA’s priority
CEO Mahinda Herath says agency is empowered by this Govt.
By Pamodi Waravita
The Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) is the apex ICT institution of the government, which has been mandated to assist the government in the implementation of all necessary measures to digitally transform Sri Lanka. The Ministry of Technology was gazetted in November 2020 and falls directly under the purview of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour policy statement listed the creation of a technology-based society as one of his main policies.
As such, the ICTA is looking at a strengthened environment for the digital transformation of the country. The Morning spoke to ICTA Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Eng. Mahinda B. Herath, who is spearheading the institution through these changes, about the future path of the institution.
Below are excerpts of the interview.
With the introduction of the Ministry of Technology, how does the role of the ICTA change?
Before the change of the government, under the previous United National Front (UNF)-led regime, the ICTA had either been under a cabinet ministry or a state ministry. After the change of the government in 2019, the ICTA was first taken under the Ministry of Defence and then placed under the Presidential Secretariat, along with several institutions that were gazetted under it. With the approval for the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, the Ministry of Technology was formed and it now falls under the purview of the President. ICTA’s role is to develop and implement national digital transformation – its role and mandate comes from that. We drive national digital transformation.
Although our role has not changed, I would say the environment to fulfill our role has been strengthened. Our former Chairman is now the Secretary to the Ministry of Technology, and 13 organisations have been brought under the Ministry, including the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) and the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (Sri Lanka CERT).
ICTA will be the technology platform for many of these organisations and it comes from a circular that was issued in January last year, where ICTA was positioned to drive the national digital initiative of the Government. All digitisation projects of the Government have to be done with the ICTA, with our approval. All government departments have been issued this circular.
What significant developments have occurred since the change of the government?
Since the shift in the government, the National Strategy for Digital Transformation, titled “Digital Transformation for a Prosperous Sri Lanka”, was developed. This has a national plan for digital government, digital economy, and all supporting sectors. According to the aforementioned circular, what we are hoping to mainly achieve is the elimination of duplications. In the past, we have seen that solutions have been developed in silos by various sections of the Government, mainly because there has not been a national framework for digitisation.
Secondly, the ICTA didn’t have that mandate to look into various technological developments, although it was in the relevant Act. Now, the stage has been set for that, with the Ministry of Technology being under the President himself. We are looking at whether there are duplications in government organisations of some of these projects and whether they would fit the national framework. We are also looking at how systems can be interoperated in the national framework. We make sure there are no duplicate investments and that there will be synergy on all systems developed by the Government. That is the digital roadmap for the country, and we have Ministry-level support to drive this now.
In the past, the ICTA had many problems. Although it was supposed to do a national job, it didn’t have a proper mechanism in place because it was faced with various challenges. One was that we could not attract good people from the industry previously. Another problem was funds; funds for the ICTA come from the Treasury. If you look at the past, only a fraction of the funds have come in and projects were stalled. We also received a bad reputation due to it. With this change of the government, that slow process too has changed because the ICTA now comes under the President himself, along with the Ministry of Technology.
What are the main projects the ICTA hopes to pursue now?
Under this mandate, there are several national-level projects the ICTA is spearheading. The main project is the development of the Sri Lanka unique digital identification (ID) framework. That would function as the root for all other services in the country that require identification. The Sri Lanka unique digital ID framework has already been developed and the implementation is currently being discussed and arranged.
How will this be implemented?
For each person, the biometrics would be taken and it would be related to a digital ID. Once it is implemented, it would serve as the source that feeds identity-related information to all other applications that require such data for unique identification purposes in the country, such as in the case of driving licenses. Therefore, this will be the source that would feed the digital identification data to all other services.
How would you address concerns regarding privacy and individual rights with the implementation of such a framework?
Firstly, let us look at the practical side of it. If you analyse the current situation, a person’s birth certificate would at least be in eight places and it is available on paper. People are feeding their ID card information to various systems already. In this case, all the information that is taken would be secured and would be in one place in a national repository. This would be in a separate section of the government cloud, separately built for the digital ID framework. Even now, the identity card information of about six million people is available at the Department for Registration of Persons. What happens here is that data will be coupled with biometrics so that crimes like the forgery of ID cards would not happen.
What sort of infrastructure is needed for the implementation of this project?
We already have the Lankan government cloud. This circular says that all government systems should use the Lankan government cloud and network. A separate area is being built for this in the government cloud.
Is this a continuation of the same digital ID project the previous Government started?
This is a new project. Digital ID projects have been there previously. In this new one, even the iris of the eye will also be scanned for biometric data. Once you give your identity details, you won’t have to carry documentation on most occasions. Depending on the application, there will be various levels of authentication. I believe that in Oman, there is no physical documentation needed at the airport – that is the ultimate stage of digital transformation we aim to achieve.
What are your thoughts regarding the negative social aspects of implementing such a system, for example, with regard to individual rights and cybersecurity-related concerns?
You have to compare the positives and negatives. Even when driving a car, there is some percentage of risk due to road accidents. Similarly, people can come up with various conspiracy theories and different ways of interpreting this. But if you consider the positives, a digital ID would make your life easier.
On top of the digital ID, there is the national data exchange. All the applications that require biometric identification-related data would be connected here and this will be the federation. Things like income taxes would be paid more diligently and it would be distributed to the common man more efficiently. The common man would benefit from a system like this. This would integrate everything and make it equitable for all people across the board.
What is the time period for the implementation of this framework?
One-and-a-half years. We are still in the discussion stage.
Would the Personal Data Protection Bill introduced by the previous Government’s Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Technology be looked into in the future?
The Data Protection Act and concerns regarding cybersecurity are a continuing process. They have gone up to the Parliament stage. Those are foundational requirements to create this ecosystem and they are being pursued vigorously.
How would the ICTA be involved if and when the regulation of digital media happens?
Firstly, I think the ICTA will not be the authority or institution to implement that. We are doing the national digital transformation and whatever systems that are required for that purpose will be developed by us.
What are the main roadblocks to digital transformation in Sri Lanka?
There are various indicators to measure digitisation. Even in the electronic government aspect, we are ahead of India in this region. Only some sections of the Indian population have the facility. Technology-wise, Sri Lanka has been at the forefront in many areas.
What are the new hurdles for digital transformation?
Digital transformation is actually a journey, and to embark on that journey, we need to create an incubating environment. The main focus of any agency or organisation that is authorised with this is to create an incubating environment. Thus, our goal is to plant a digital seed in the country.
Many parts of the country still have accessibility issues with regard to internet and digital technology. We saw that with the start of this pandemic how many students faced barriers to online education. How do you hope to address these issues with the digital transformation framework ICTA hopes to implement?
Economists regard digital transformation in terms of general purpose technology (GPT). The internet and electricity are GPTs, because they will finally go to every level of society. If it is not there only will you feel it. In many organisations, there are chief digital transformation officers. Such an officer would not be required in 10 years’ time because it would be the norm by then.
However, in any economic transformation process, there are both the supply and demand sides. On one side, we create digital systems and platforms. On the other end, it should be consumed by the masses. About 80% of the Sri Lankan population live in rural settings. Unless these solutions bring value to the daily lives of the masses, they would not use it. We aim to develop that side by addressing the issues of availability, affordability, and applicability. We have to create digital applications that bring value to the masses.
How do you plan on overcoming the affordability aspect of the internet?
This is a misconception. Sri Lanka’s internet charges are among the lowest in the world. If you take data for June 2020, Sri Lanka is among the lowest in the world in terms of the cost for one gigabyte of data. Many people don’t understand the business side of it. Some time ago, all the traffic was dominated by voice. During the era of pure voice, when traffic increased, revenue increased as well. When you move to the data region, traffic grows exponentially while revenue remains flat.
Worldwide, just providing data isn’t a viable business model. How various people have overcome that is through the provision of over the top services (OTT). OTT services base their business model on advertising. Any operator who only provides data services is not viable in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s case is much worse because we are giving very low prices. Around 70-80% of the revenue of a telecommunication service provider is from voice. They are going for a different business model now – OTT services or sponsored strategies. Similarly, operators are going for various other business models like advertising-centric models.
What other specific digital changes has the pandemic brought about?
On the one side, digitising our daily lives was the silver lining in the dark cloud. Many people started using e-commerce facilities more, and people who had never used e-commerce facilities before made the switch. People started realising the value of digital transformation and getting something done from home. That requirement was understood by many and the usage increased. On the other hand, the pandemic impacted the economy negatively and along with these positives, many companies are facing more economic problems now.
Changes have also occurred in the ICTA Board. How does that affect the organisation?
If you look at the ICTA Board that is in place, it has many people from the industry for the first time. We have people who have come from the industry and they are actively supporting us with their tacit knowledge and experience.
Our new organisational structure has been approved by the Cabinet. We are now working to expand and strengthen the technology team, focusing on the three pillars of digital government, digital economy, and digital services. We are looking for chief officer-level people to head each of these pillars. We are now tailoring ourselves to make this digital transformation happen.
The ICTA is fostering that environment and we will be having a separate Director for Industry Development. Already, the ICTA is at the forefront for incubating start-ups. Around 70-75% of the 300 start-ups are a result of ICTA’s incubation.