Smartphones, combined with the use of social media, are being used on a growing scale in Latin America and elsewhere to gather evidence of corruption and other illegal acts and demand accountability, according to a new report by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. How has technology been used most effectively to combat corruption, and what are the most promising ways that it can be employed in the fight against graft in the future? Which countries in the region are making the best use of technology to promote clean and transparent government? What are the biggest obstacles that stand in the way of wider use of technology to fight corruption?
Richard Fogarty and Phil Beckett, managing directors at the disputes and investigations practice at Alvarez & Marsal: “Data is the lifeblood of most modern-day organizations: this is no less true for an investigator looking at potential corruption in Latin America and elsewhere around the globe. Although not the only source of information relevant to an investigation, data can provide an unbiased, unaltered and accurate reflection of historic events unlike other sources. The distinction between work and personal with respect to technology is decreasing as we see work conversations being carried out on messaging systems such as WhatsApp (quite popular as a work and personal tool in Latin America, as are other apps such as Signal, Telegram and Silent Phone) and networks being managed on social media sites such as LinkedIn. Regardless, data can aid an investigation by: 1.) Analyzing communication and document data to look for evidence and intelligence contained within either the content or the metadata of those documents. Sometimes, it can be as important to establish who is speaking to whom and when as it is what they actually say. 2.) Analyzing relevant structured data (such as accounting data and telephone records) to identify unusual patterns, relationships or records or to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Again, it is beneficial not just to look at the records themselves, but also the associated metadata—for example when the record was entered and who approved it. The use of smartphones and social media means that when considering the above, it is necessary to cast the net appropriately to capture relevant devices and accounts and also consider Internet investigation techniques to legally gather data from publicly available data related to social media accounts. It is essential that data is central to the investigative process and not viewed as a separate, stand-alone task.”
Ashley Friedman, senior director of policy at the Information Technology Industry Council: “Technology has remarkable potential to spur economic growth, promote trust between citizens and their government, and reduce crime and corruption. Governments all over the world have deployed technology to enhance transparency of government proceedings and establish more direct communication channels between citizens and governments. For example, governments have made federal records and data accessible to citizens in order to increase visibility into government activities. They have created repositories of public data containing key information about their countries in areas such as infrastructure, health, climate, finance and education. Such public databases are important ways in which governments can leverage technology to increase access to knowledge and awareness of the current state of the country among citizens. Additionally, many governments use e-services to create more direct channels of feedback and communication between citizens and government, reducing the opacity of government transactions and promoting trust. Technological advancements have also enabled citizens to observe the speed and status of government transactions, decreasing opportunities for corruption to surface. Automating key services or creating ‘paperless’ systems reduces opportunities for individual bribes or influence. To fully embrace these changes, governments must prioritize necessary up-front investments to develop these systems, including measures to safeguard citizens’ privacy and security, which will save significant resources over time, and increase access to technology and connectivity so that these benefits spread to all communities throughout their countries.”
Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: “While I believe technology to be the best ally in the fight against corruption, its effectiveness will largely depend upon the presence or lack of three conditions. First, of course, is rule of law. Except for Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay, rule of law is absent from most Latin American nations, where judiciaries lack independence from executive branches and from rich and influential people. Second is enforcement which, again in Latin America, largely depends on who you are. If you are among the elite, chances are that law enforcement agents will be less harsh and demanding with you than with an unknown. Then comes institutional consistency. Weak institutional frameworks can easily be penetrated by affluent people, who include criminals. Technology can thus facilitate exposing, recording and building cases against corruption but will not be able to overcome structural weaknesses that date from the times of Philip II of Spain. This monarch created institutions that were and are corporativist, monopolistic and obscure to perform rent extraction. All these conditions breathe life into corruption networks. Unless Latin American nations dare to bring down that institutional framework to create one that is nurtured by private property, competition and free enterprise, corruption will thrive in the region.”
Laura Gaviria Halaby, senior innovation advisor at IDB Lab: “From localities using distributed ledger technology to improve land registries when paper records fail, to biometrics providing additional payment security, to machine learning identifying early signs of fraud from vast data sets, a wide range of technology solutions are being used to combat corruption. Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay are the leaders in transparency, but we have also seen Argentina committing to becoming paperless, Mexico City using a fiscal transparency portal to disclose its public contracts and Colombia testing blockchain to restitute land. We are in the early stages of governments adopting these solutions due to procurement challenges, costs, legacy IT infrastructure and unaligned incentives. I therefore believe it’s most important that governments use open-architecture technology, so solutions can work with existing systems, connect to future services, be easy to use and not take years to implement. I am excited and optimistic to see governments at the local and federal levels continue to use innovative tools to lower transaction costs, increase revenue collection, improve accountability and most importantly, communicate more effectively with the people they represent. I hope countries will share their success and failures along the way and commit to frameworks of data ethics.”
María Fernanda Pérez Argüello, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: “The solutions to Latin America’s oldest problem are at our fingertips. International organizations estimate corruption can cost Latin American countries as much as 10 percent of their GDP. Breakthroughs in data technology provide invaluable tools to fight graft. Blockchain, for example, has great potential to fight corruption on a large scale, as data stored in blockchain is unalterable. When blockchain technology is used for datasets in public contracts, the space for alteration of numbers or other crucial information is significantly reduced. A major obstacle today, however, lies in the quality of data. Even in countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay that are moving toward publishing more open data, that data is many times unreadable. Open data just for the sake of open data helps no one. In order to fully benefit from the promise of immutable public contracts, data provided by governments must be readable, verified and disaggregated. Another major cross-cutting obstacle is political will and multi-stakeholder collaboration. The problem of corruption is multidimensional and requires all hands on deck in order to effectively disappear.”
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