Government’s data collection may seem shady – but it’s also becoming the new normal

In late June, the Gupta emails once again made headlines when documents showed that the controversial family had spied on prominent South Africans, including former finance minister Trevor Manuel; his wife and Absa CEO Maria Ramos; EFF leader Julius Malema and FirstRand bosses Laurie Dippenaar and GT Ferreira.

This included information such as personal details,  international flight details and ID numbers. Speaking on the details available, Dippenaar said that the existence of the spreadsheets confirmed his worst fears.

“The only way they could have obtained that is from home affairs. Now I have to ask, what is a private family’s enterprise doing with government information?”

Tracking you

While the idea that Home Affairs may be giving privileged personal information to other private individuals because they have been captured has understandably caused controversy, the idea that they may soon be collecting and selling information in the future is now a very real possibility.

In the ANC’s “Peace and Stability” discussion document, currently being discussed at the party’s NEC, it calls for a complete restructuring of Home Affairs which would not only see your data being collected but will also see the department tracking and charging for certain transactions.

It also proposes selling this personal information to private companies as an means of generating additional revenue.

However this isn’t the only piece of documentation that is calling for more data collection.

The recently released NHI White paper confirmed that the department of health has been working with the CSIR to create a unique patient identifier system, with six million South Africans currently registered under the system which will help track personal information, contributions and pay-outs.

Even SARS has now made it an official prerequisite that taxpayers verify themselves in-branch when making changes to their personal details.

Winds of change

While it may seem disconcerting that a number of government departments are pushing for more and more data collection,  it is also becoming “the new normal” for governments worldwide, according to Viral Chawda Managing Director of Data & Analytics at KPMG in the United States.

“Data is increasingly becoming the most important asset for enterprises. And governments are no exception,” said Chawda.

“In the years ahead, the application of data science—the ability to extract knowledge and insights from large and complex data sets—will be crucial for states, counties and cities in their attempts to manage operations efficiently and improve the citizen experience in their constituencies.”

“Consequently, a relatively new position, the chief data officer (CDO), has emerged in state and local governments. Under the leadership of a CDO, government agencies can begin to break down silos to better share information and create greater transparency for citizens, businesses and other officials to find the data they need in a format they can use.”

This is reflected in the Home Affairs document itself which notes that the data collected will be used to “draw tactical and strategic lessons that will be used to mitigate risks, counter threats and address systemic faults in partnerships with relevant departments.”

It has also been used successfully in cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seattle and other cities are using a data technique called “predictive policing” to help curb street crime, said Chawda.

“The goal is to turn data into something useful,” he said.

“By developing a successful data and analytics initiative, CDOs can help government agencies better carry out their missions with less waste, more efficiencies, and better outcomes. And hopefully lead to a better government to improve the quality of life for all its citizens.”

Read: Counting the cost of data breaches in South Africa

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Government’s data collection may seem shady – but it’s also becoming the new normal