Alerting people when their data is used is part of security culture, says Mongolian official

SINGAPORE – To help the people of Mongolia take ownership of their personal data, its government recently required that notifications to be sent to citizens when government agencies use their data to an extent not usually seen in many countries, including Singapore.

For example, if a Mongolian makes an application to the tax authority, he will get a notification through an electronic government services app that the authority is checking his data when processing the application.

If he does not get this alert, he can file a complaint through the app, called e-Mongolia, to a centre that comes under the Mongolian prime minister’s office.

For healthcare, if a doctor checks a patient’s health records, the patient will be notified on the app about this. It tells him which hospital and doctor were involved, and the time this check was done, among other things.

“Mongolia is a very democratic country. And the way we see human rights in the digitalised world is to give you a right to own your data and, most importantly, have control over your data,” explained Ms Bolor-Erdene Battsengel, the state secretary of Mongolia’s Ministry of Digital Development and Communications, on Tuesday (May 31).

Ms Bolor-Erdene, 29, the youngest member of the Mongolian government’s Cabinet, added: “We pay a lot of attention to educating our citizens on creating a culture where they think about their security first when they sign up for different platforms.”

She was speaking with The Straits Times on the sidelines of the Asia Tech x Singapore technology event organised by Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).

Mongolia’s Parliament passed the Law on Personal Data Protection in December last year and it took effect in May. It is said to be more stringent than the previous legislation when it comes to personal data.

Ms Bolor-Erdene’s ministry said that, in future, the government will develop a system in which citizens can give approval for the use of their data. If they refuse, their data cannot be accessed.

Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act does not prescribe how organisations should inform people on the use of their personal data.

But the country’s Personal Data Protection Commission encourages organisations to consider “just-in-time” notifications, where the necessary information is provided to people just before data processing takes place. This could be useful for more sensitive types of information, such as health-related data, the commission has said.

Notifying citizens when the government uses their data is one way Mongolia is trying to balance its aims of digitalising with rising online threats such as cyber attacks and scams.

In October 2020, the country launched the e-Mongolia platform to provide citizens with more government services digitally. Initially, there were about 180 public services available. Now, this has grown to over 650.

For instance, citizens living in the countryside, like herdsmen, can apply for passports online instead of spending hours travelling to towns or cities to do so.

The government is also working to digitalise the healthcare sector. Citizens can make appointments with hospitals and get medical test results online.

Ms Bolor-Erdene had pitched to Mongolia’s leadership the e-Mongolia concept after she was involved in a 2019 project with the University of Oxford, where she was earlier awarded a master’s degree in public policy.

Through the project, she realised that Mongolia’s private sector, start-ups and non-governmental organisations had moved ahead much faster with technology but were slowed down by the government. The e-Mongolia platform was proposed to address this and Ms Bolor-Erdene was tasked with rolling it out.

“Traditionally, the government was very bureaucratic and slow but now, we’re moving towards a smarter, faster, more flexible and more efficient government,” she said.

In July 2020, she was appointed as the chairman of Mongolia’s Communication and Information Technology Authority. Then in January this year, she was designated the Secretary of State of the new Ministry of Digital Development and Communications, which was set up in January 2021.

Hailing from a rural town on the Mongolian steppe, she has since worked in the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and United Nations.

Last year, Forbes magazine put her on its 30 Under 30 list for social impact in Asia, which recognises the contributions of young people under the age of 30.

In May, Time magazine named her as one of its Next Generation Leaders of 2022, an accolade which honours young trailblazers who are working to build a better world.

But being a young woman leading her country’s digitalisation efforts has its challenges.

Ms Bolor-Erdene said that beyond Mongolia, globally and especially in Asia, there is a bias against women leaders in government.

While Mongolia’s government does have women leaders, not many are young, compared with the private sector, Ms Bolor-Erdene said, adding that she and others face challenges in getting accepted because of their age or looks, and not because what they are doing is wrong.

“A lot of people talk about your appearance, not judging you professionally but judging you by your dress, your hair – a lot of things that men don’t get judged by,” she said separately at a panel on women in technology at Asia Tech x Singapore held at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore on Wednesday.

She was replying to a question on how to tackle self-doubt.

Noting that women need to work much harder than men to be accepted, she said there are many young, hardworking and talented women globally who are held back by having to think about their families and children, as well as what their parents and communities think about them.

“You need to be brave for yourself,” she advised other women.

Citing a former colleague, Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, who was also on the panel, advised women to “doubt the doubt” and “start thinking about what is it that we have been doing and maybe less of what we have not been able to do”.

She also pointed to a Boston Consulting Group and IMDA study released in 2020 which found that women accounted for 41 per cent of the tech sector in Singapore, higher than the global average of 28 per cent.

Considering this and what can be done to attract more women to tech and get them to stay in the sector, Mrs Teo said that, among other things, their commitments to caring for children and seniors, which can lead to them leaving the workforce, need to be addressed.

“We’ve got to be able to focus on these issues by providing better… childcare or eldercare, and making them high quality as well as affordable,” she said. “That’s been a big focus for us in government.”


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