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Observations on Obfuscation through E-Governance

T. R. Raghunandan

10 November 2022

The conventional wisdom behind e-Governance, repeated so often that we ignore its true implications, states that e-Governance improves transparency. This leads to the question; what exactly is transparency? Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, describes five stages of openness of government data:

Stage 1: Data is put out in any format but under an open licence that enables it to be copied and reproduced. For example, a PDF document fits the bill quite nicely.

Stage 2: Data is made available in a structured form that can be manipulated, sliced, and diced. For example, a table in spreadsheet format.

Stage 3: Data can not only be manipulated, but is available on non-proprietary software.

Stage 4: Data is linkable through URIs, i.e. ‘Uniform Resource Identifiers’, which enable a greater degree of extraction and analysis than a document containing data in Stage 3.

Stage 5: In the final stage, documents with URIs are capable of being linked so that different datasets can be used together. It is only if the government can reach this stage that it can be considered to have achieved the pinnacle of openness in its open data.

While these are logical and desirable steps that the government must take to achieve true openness, what usually happens is that the government declares victory on IT-enabling a service or database, far before it has reached a level of true transparency.

Government officers driving IT enabling have wide leeway as to when they declare a project to be completely successful, regardless of whether transparency has been truly achieved. For example, data may be put out in a PDF document, which does not allow sufficient leeway for readers to extract data, compare it with other documents, and undertake numerical analysis. An image file of a spreadsheet may be uploaded and closure declared. A data file may be uploaded in a format that requires proprietary software for access, which all data seekers may not have.

Transparency can be reversed as well, which is often done stealthily. Just how pernicious that approach could be, was brought to me through a recent example.

Mr. P.G. Bhat has been a steadfast civil society activist, who has devoted more than a decade to the analysis of electoral rolls to detect errors and omissions. The Election Commission of India has long maintained that the electoral rolls are public documents. These were initially published as text PDF files. Since 2010, Mr. Bhat began to extract the electoral rolls of Bengaluru and undertake their analysis.

In 2012, he discovered that about 13,50,000 voter records (out of about 65,00,000) were deleted from these electoral rolls. Not receiving a favourable response from the Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka and the Election Commission of India, a Public Interest Litigation was filed with the High Court of Karnataka, which directed the authorities to take corrective action.

This seemed to have incensed the authorities considerably. A new Chief Electoral Officer took over and the next version of the electoral rolls published in January 2013 was CAPTCHA-protected, making it more difficult to download. Undaunted, Mr. Bhat downloaded these and analysed them. In response, the documents were converted to image files and were re-published. Transparency was reversed.

Mr. Bhat lobbied with officials within the EC who were sympathetic to his approach. After protracted discussions with the Election Commissioners in Delhi, the transparency policy underwent a favourable U-turn. The electoral rolls were again published in text PDF format. However, the Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka was unwilling to relent. Relying on the rationale that data security needed to be ensured, he averred that access to electoral rolls needed to be restricted.

In 2017, the Chief Electoral Officer again published the electoral rolls as image files. This time around, approaching the Election Commission did not bear results. In January 2018, the ECI mandated all the CEOs to publish the electoral rolls as image files.

 

The views are of the author and do not represent an institutional stand. 

T.R. Raghunandan is an Advisor at the Accountability Initiative. 

Also Read: E-Governance and Decentralisation

 

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