Does every Colombian will own an official email?

by Digital Rights LAC on November 29, 2014


Throughout Latin America and the rest of the world, the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to help governments provide public and social services to citizens are on the rise in a trend called e-government. Though the positives associated with embracing such novelties in ICT are fairly self-evident, there are legitimate concerns associated with its increased adoption around the globe.


By Tyler Snell* and Pilar Sáenz**

State agencies are finally embracing these technologies that many were initially reluctant to adopt in hopes of streamlining procedures, increasing transparency, maximizing the speed and efficiency of communication, and increasing civic participation through effective use the digital realm. According to the UN and the Millennium Development Goals, e-government is a staple of inclusive and sustainable development. Though the positives associated with embracing such novelties in ICT are fairly self-evident, there are legitimate concerns associated with its increased adoption around the globe.

Nearly every digital database in existence has fallen prey to cyberattacks, and most falter at some point, including government bodies containing tax and health information, defense agencies, multinational companies with private photos and financial information, school databases with academic histories, among other security breaches that have left millions of people’s sensitive personal information vulnerable. Privacy and security advocates have called for a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of consolidating information electronically. The UN’s recently released 2014 E-Government Survey and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2014 Global E-Government Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan that took place on October 7 and 8, 2014 are appropriate forums to open such a discourse. The Global Forum focused on workshops that included the use of architectural approach in the public sector, smart convergence technologies, and data science for smart government.

According to the United Nations 2014 E-Government Survey, the Americas region is second only to Europe in its E-Government Index. While South Korea, Singapore and Australia take the top three spots internationally, the United States and Canada are the leaders in e-government in the Americas, placing 7th and 11th respectively. When it comes to e-participation and citizens actually making use of digital government services, Uruguay placed 3rd out of all countries and Colombia placed 8th due to both countries comparatively high use of E-information, E-consultation, E-decision-making. Unsurprisingly, Central America and the Caribbean are comparatively low on these indexes compared to the rest of Latin America and the world.

An interesting and unique trend in Spanish Speaking Countries´s adoption of E-government has been the aggregation of official state, academic, and medical documents into one convenient cloud folder, called the Citizens Folder. Spain and Colombia have been the two countries to lead the adoption of such consolidated digital databases on a nationwide scale, while certain cities and municipalities in other countries have adopted Citizen’s Folders for local government. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay have pursued similar but slightly different policies by creating lists of state services they are able to perform online but are not necessarily held in one cloud folder or directed by one single government agency. While these countries failing to consolidate their information as aggressively as Spain or Colombia, they leave greater room for information security in the likelihood that one of the government databases are hacked so that not all of their medical, academic, and personal data become exposed.

The Colombian Citizens Folder was part of President Juan Manuel Santos and ICT Minister Diego Molano Vega 2014-2018 Plan Vive Digital, which included creating a public-private alliance proposed to provide each Colombian citizen with a free, cloud-based folder that is comprised of their own email account, digital identification, medical history, academic history, birth certificate, passport information and state certifications. For Colombians, this assembly of official documents is supposed to prevent the fraud associated with photocopying state identifications, but it also opens up a different set of problems associated with online storage of sensitive material. It remains unclear whether this Citizens Folder or even the official e-mail will be obligatory for all citizens and whether each hospital will automatically record their patient’s medical history in this cloud folder, or if Colombians are able to opt-out of participating.

As the Colombian government announced the citizen folder project, voices in dissent began to speak out. Particularly, in the discussion list of the collective RedPaTodos, information that could be related with this project was identified. In light of the findings, it seems that this is not a project under discussion, open for comments, but an initiative that is already under development. In regards to possible implementation, some concerns have been raised, while as to the proximity of the implementation, there are some considerations that have been suggested.

Concerns include the likelihood of coercion between government and implementing private entities, sensitive information theft, phishing caused by security breaches, the use of the platform for civil rights violation, including the impossibility of making complaint to official bodies anonymously, among others.

Among the considerations for implementation, there can be pointed out the following: the obligation to keep encrypted citizen folder information, as well as the reflection on using free software, and applying open standards and protocols. In addition, it is proposed the implementation of a decentralized infrastructure for storing information.

On the information as such, the collective has raised the need for having express authorization of citizens for accessing and using their information, and clear regulations specifying the rights of users, State and institutions that have access to the information.

The first concrete action undertaken by RedPaTodos was a right to petition to the Ministry of ICT on the current status of the project, tenders and call made as part of it, technical studies on protection mechanisms of user information, the protection of this information, and technological criteria related to the implementation. In the absence of a response from the Government, the collective has exercised an action for protection requesting the court to instruct the Ministry of ICT to respond the right of petition.

Spain is letting each of its various provinces determine the extent of services their Citizens Folders offer, but its goals are similar to those of Colombia. The explicit aims are to guarantee Spanish citizens security for their digital identity and facilitate easier and greater communication between the state and its citizens. Only some cities contain an official email account, while others include medical and academic histories. Almost all Citizens Folders throughout Spain offer the ability to pay fines, file police reports, and renew their official state identification cards.

Colombia and Uruguay have done comparatively well on e-government services thanks to national pushes that began over a decade ago to incorporate ICT to modernize their democracies and engage their citizens. Other countries in Central America in the Caribbean like El Salvador and Guatemala have lagged behind due to lack of resources and policy emphasis on e-government, though as internet penetration increases throughout the region, this is sure to change. Colombia and Spain were among the first Iberoamerican countries to establish a Ministry of Information Technologies and as a result have benefited greatly from a concentrated efforts led by such ministries. This is perhaps why they have pursued a more aggressive e-government strategy by creating the Citizens Folder. What remains to be seen is whether these e-government policies like the Citizens Folder that are designed to improve digital security are able to fulfill their stated aims, or whether they in fact put their citizens sensitive information at greater risk by consolidating them into one presumably secure but probably hackable database.

* Tyler Snell Google Policy Fellow at the Karisma Foundation (June-September 2014).

** María del Pilar Sáenz, physics profession, vocation activist. Enthusiastic free software, open technologies and free culture. I work on the Karisma Foundation and I´m part of Hackbo and RedPaTodos. @mapisaro

Translated by, Amelia Toledo.