Digital Transformation and Privacy Concerns

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Digital Transformation and Privacy Concerns

The existing policies appear insufficient to tackle the challenges arising from digital transformation.

BY Anusha Basnet

As the world moves towards digitization, Nepal is also following suit and pushing for digital transformation. The government has announced several initiatives and formulated laws to support infrastructure that facilitates a smooth digital transition. The laws, including the Telecom Policy 2004, IT Policy 2010, Broadband Policy 2010, Broadband Policy 2015, ICT Policy 2015, and Cybersecurity Bylaw, have been enacted to ensure effective transformation. Additionally, the Digital Nepal Framework 2019 provides a roadmap for digital initiatives to contribute to economic growth, solve societal challenges with fewer resources, and identify opportunities for Nepal on the global stage. The framework covers eight sectors - digital foundation, agriculture, health, education, energy, tourism, finance, and urban infrastructure.
Despite the government's efforts to create policies to support digitisation, concerns regarding data security and privacy have not been addressed adequately. Although the government has been promoting the adoption of digital technologies, government offices themselves have been victims of cyber attacks, and they have also been accused of publicly releasing individuals' private details. Additionally, the government has faced criticisms for introducing the Nepal Special Services Bill, which initially granted authorities permission to intercept individuals' digital communication, including phone tapping.
The government services have faced multiple cyber attacks, rendering them unable to function. In January of this year, a cyber attack targeted the Government Integrated Data Centre (GIDC) which affected 400 government offices. The attack was carried out using a 'Distributed Denial of Service' (DDoS) technique and lasted for four hours. The Tribhuvan International Airport was the most affected, with international flights experiencing delays of up to three hours. This was the latest attack, with government websites being previously targeted by hackers in 2018.
Even more concerning is the fact that constitutional bodies have been careless with the private data of citizens. The Election Commission, in particular, has faced criticism for publicly releasing voters' personal data. Details such as name, age, gender, address, voting station, spouse's name, parents' name, and voter ID number were easily accessible on the commission's website. Critics have raised concerns about privacy and the potential for misappropriation of such sensitive data. However, despite the backlash, the commission did not take corrective measures, which has eroded the trust of citizens in the government's ability to protect their data.
The increasing use of digital technologies also brings the risk of surveillance. In June 2020, the National Assembly introduced and endorsed the Nepal Special Services Bill, which included provisions allowing authorities to intercept individuals' digital communications, including phone tapping. Experts and civil society raised concerns about potential violations of privacy if the bill were to pass. The lower house passed the bill after amendments were made to remove the controversial measures. Additionally, the use of biometrics when creating government documents has increased in recent years. But there is no guarantee that sensitive information will not fall into the wrong hands or be used inappropriately by government authorities.
Moreover, as the government moves many of its services online and apps like Nagarik app collect personal data, concerns about the safety of this data and prevention of its misuse have been raised. Exposing personal data can lead to cyber crimes such as phishing, extortion, embezzlement, and fraud. It is therefore crucial to prioritise the security of this data. However, the jurisdiction of the Nepal Police's Cyber Crime Bureau is limited, reducing its ability to handle complaints regarding cyber crimes effectively.
Despite the policies that the government has introduced, it appears that they are insufficient to tackle the challenges arising from digital transformation. As the government accelerates its adoption of digital technologies, it must also prioritise ensuring that data breaches do not occur. The recent cyber attacks have exposed the vulnerabilities in the government's system, which could be exploited again in the future. Therefore, it should take steps to strengthen the firewalls in its websites and put a plan in place to respond to such incidents.
The government should also pay attention to data privacy and safety in private sectors as Nepal has seen an incredible leap in adopting digital technologies when it comes to availing services including banking, online shopping, and online education and health services. Creation and implementation of laws that deal with misuse of data from private companies is necessary.
In addition, the government should also take steps to rectify situations where personal information of the citizens has been made public. It must ensure that personal data collected through its apps are protected and cannot be misused, even by government authorities.
Given that the digital landscape is constantly evolving, the challenges it presents remain ever-changing. Therefore, the government must remain prepared to tackle the existing and future challenges that digital transformation presents. 
(Anusha Basnet is a Senior Research Assistant at Nepal Institute for Policy Research)

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