The need to reduce the digital divide in Latin America and the defense of the right of citizens to control their digital footprint against those who “do business with their personal data” are two of the great challenges facing Colombian María Isabel Mejía, head of digital innovation at CAF-Latin American Development Bank.
Mejía is a systems and computer engineer with more than 35 years of experience in information and communication technologies (ICT), both in the public and private spheres. As Vice Minister of Information Technologies and Systems, between 2012 and 2016 she led the strengthening of the ICT industry in Colombia. She is currently a senior executive in Digital Government in the CAF Directorate of State Digital Innovation, from where she drives the digital transformation of the State in Latin American countries. This week he has been in the capital of Spain to participate in the Policy Dialogue 2019 of the Club de Madrid, dedicated to the challenges of digital transformation and artificial intelligence (AI).
The Diplomat: What is the scope of the so-called digital footprint?
María Isabel Mejía: The digital footprint is configured from interactions with digital devices. When we surf the Internet, use cell phones or GPS, watch Netflix, Spotify or YouTube, watch videos or use social networks, our digital footprint remains there because we have given permission and we have accepted the conditions through cookies, and our habits, our tastes, what we buy, what we think are recorded. That is already a reality, in Latin America and around the world.
TD: And to what extent are citizens affected or protected by the digital footprint?
MIM: With the personal data protection laws passed in different countries, people have the right to ask to be removed from those lists, and that’s a step forward, but citizens should have the right to know what data they have about us, to own our data, because our data belongs to others, to those who do business with our data, such as banks, insurance companies and all those who want us to consume goods and services. We should be able to own our information and learn to manage our own data, because there is an abyss between those who can follow the digital footprint and those who cannot.
TD: Does the state have any responsibility for this?
MIM: The state has the responsibility to regulate data protection, to enforce personal data regulations, but it must also make people aware that they have to learn how to manage their digital footprint, give them the knowledge and skills to manage the digital footprint.
TD: And what are the advantages and dangers of government digital footprint use?
MIM: It depends on the type of regime in each country. A government can use the data to formulate better public policies and make better decisions. In a responsible government that seeks the public good, it can be wonderful that it has our data, but even in these cases it also has to be regulated, because not only does the use of the data by the private sector have to be regulated. It is an opportunity, but there is also a risk that certain States will use personal data in a way that negatively affects the same people.
TD: How does CAF work to reduce the digital divide in Latin America?
MIM: The CAF is a development bank that historically has always supported the development of countries, helping them to build infrastructure, such as roads, airports, energy or telecommunications. But it is also aware that the development of countries does not only involve investments in infrastructure; modern, agile, more efficient, more transparent and more open states are also needed, and for this reason a State Digital Innovation Department has been created to support states in their strategy of digital transformation, in the incorporation of new technologies and in the use of data to formulate better public policies, improve services to citizens and improve the internal efficiency of states. Within this strategy, we promote the use of data and Artificial Intelligence in the public sector in a responsible manner; I always give him that surname, the use of responsible Artificial Intelligence and data.
TD: To what extent is it urgent to reduce the digital divide in Latin America?
MIM: Access to the Internet is totally urgent, very urgent, because definitely access to the Internet and new technologies, the Internet of things, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, lead to an improvement in the quality of life and people can not be disconnected from technologies that will improve the quality of life. It is urgent to provide all the necessary resources to democratize technology and for everyone to have access to it, because if the digital divide is not reduced, there is a risk of deepening the social divide. For this reason, public policies must be formulated to reach the populations of rural areas with the lowest incomes, where there are still many people without even access to the Internet. Bringing technology to rural populations can be very costly for private operators, there is no demand, it is not profitable and, therefore, there is no business.