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Data policy won’t help govt spy on anyone, says Ndabeni-Abrahams

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Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Minister of communications and digital technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, has addressed concerns raised by citizens and experts about the draft National Data and Cloud Policy.

This after law and ICT experts have, in recent weeks, highlighted several “flaws” in SA’s data policy, questioning government’s approach to co-own data produced locally and position citizens’ data as the infrastructure for production.

The draft policy, which was published on 1 April 2021 for public comment, proposes to develop a state digital infrastructure company and high-performance computing and data processing centre.

It aims to consolidate excess capacity of publicly-funded data centres and deliver data facilities and cloud computing capacity.

During the virtual colloquium to discuss the new policy this morning, Ndabeni-Abrahams noted the department has, to date, received over 17 000 submissions, which are being reviewed and analysed.

She pointed out the draft policy does not intend to help government to spy on anyone, but rather, it is about reinforcing the acceleration of the rollout of digital infrastructure to help create a connected society.

Among the received concerns was on the proposal to establish a high-performance computing data processing centre. The public argued that government is trying to create another state-owned company, which it does not have the capacity to run.

Ndabeni-Abrahams refuted claims that the centre is government’s attempt to compete with the private sector to provide cloud services.

“The draft policy is also about the storage, processing and digitisation of government data to create access for citizens, emerging businesses, government and even the private sector.

“There is no intention to force the private sector to store their data in the high-performance computing data processing centre. We are clearly indicating that government data will be stored there, while we will strengthen and preserve the confidentiality and security of the stored data in a manner that will encourage other parties to store their data there,” she explained.

The draft policy, according to Ndabeni-Abrahams, also recognises the need for data security and protection, hence its reinforcement of cyber security and the protection of personal information, including the recommendation for review to support data protection and security as well as a data-driven economy.

Protecting security, sovereignty

Among the other concerns the minister addressed was the issue of critical information infrastructure – the public is specifically worried that the definition of such infrastructure is too wide and could be an impediment to investment, as most of the infrastructure could be unnecessarily classified under this definition, thereby prohibiting free flow of information.

“I would like to clarify the issue of data localisation. It is important to recognise that we have a responsibility to protect the security and sovereignty of our republic, and, as such, we unapologetically insist that Critical Information Infrastructure data (all ICT systems, data systems, databases, networks including people, buildings, facilities and processes), that are fundamental to the effective operation of the Republic) be stored within the borders of SA.”

Concerns had also been raised on the policy’s focus on data ownership – that raw data carries little value and only gains value when it is processed in a way that generates digital intelligence.

“The government data referred to must be accessible data in useable form to innovate and develop digital products and services that improve the way we do business, interact with government and support evidence-based policy-making, and ultimately enhance service delivery by government.

“Furthermore, it is about creating a feasible environment for data-sharing and interoperability to strengthen cooperation and collaboration among government departments and state-owned enterprises to satisfy the unlimited needs of government and citizens,” noted Ndabeni-Abrahams.

The department has received a request to extend the closing date for public comments, which it has agreed to, she added.

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