Are Public Mail Systems a Danger in Developing Countries?

Over the past two years I’ve interviewed dozens of government ICT managers in countries throughout Asia, the Caribbean, and Europe.  One of the surprising items collected during the interviews is the large number of government employees – some at the highest levels, using public mail systems for their professional communications.

While this might appear as a non-issue with some, others might find it both a security issue (by using a foreign commercial company to process and store government correspondence), as well as an identity issue (by using an XXX@gmail.com or XXX@yahoo.com ) while communicating with a government employee or official.

Reasons provided in interviews concluded the reason why government employees are using commercial email systems include:

  • Lack of timely provisioning by government ICT managers
  • Concerns over lack of privacy within a government-managed email system
  • Desire to work from home or while mobile, and the government system does not support remote or web access to email (or the perception this is the case)
  • Actual mail system performance is better on public systems than internal government-operated systems
  • Government ICT systems have a high internal transfer cost, even for simple utilities such as email

and so on.

When pressed further, many were not aware of the risk that government correspondence processed through public systems potentially resulted in images being stored on storage systems probably located in other countries.  Depending on the country, that email image could easily be provided to foreign law enforcement agencies under lawful warrants – thus exposing potentially sensitive information for exploitation by a foreign government.

Are Public Email Accounts Bad?

Not at all.  Most of us use at least one personal email address on a public mail system, some many addresses.  Public systems allow on-demand user creation of accounts, and if desired allow individuals to create anonymous identities for use when using other social media or public networks. 

Public addresses can separate an individual’s online identity from their “real world” identity, allowing higher levels of privacy any anonymous participation in social media or other activities where the user wishes to not have their full identity revealed.

The addresses are also quite simple to use, cost nothing, and are in use around the world.

Governments are also starting to make better use of commercial or public email outsourcing, with the City of Los Angeles being one of the more well-known projects.  The City of LA has service level agreements with Google (their outsource company), assuring security an confidentiality, as well as operational service levels. 

This is no doubt going to be a continuing trend, with public private partnerships (PPPs) relieving government users from the burden of infrastructure and some applications management.  With the US CIO Vivek Kundra aggressively pushing the national data center consolidation and cloud computing agenda, the move towards hosted or SaaS applications will increase.

Many benefits here as well, including:

  1. Hosted mail systems may keep an image of mail in storage – much more secure than if an individual PC loses single images of mail from a POP server
  2. Access from any Internet connected workstation or computer (of course assuming good passwords and security)
  3. Standardization among organizational user (both for mail formatting and client use)
  4. Cheaper operating costs

To address recent budget and human resource challenges, the City of Orlando moved its e-mail and productivity solution to the cloud (application and cloud  hosting services provided by Google).  The City has realized a 65 percent reduction in e-mail costs and provided additional features to increase the productivity of workers. (CIO Council, State of Public sector Cloud Computing)

For developing countries this is probably a good thing – have all the features and services of the best in class email systems, while significantly reducing the cost and burden of developing physical data center facilities.

But for the meantime, as that strategy and vision is defined, the use of public or cloud hosted email services in many developing countries in one of convenience.  We will only hope that commercial email providers safeguard data processed by government user’s personal accounts, used for communicating all levels of government information, with the same service level agreements offered large users such as the City of LA or City of Orlando.

Developing the Developing World with Lynne Gallagher

I met up with Lynne Gallagher, President of Telecom Telematique, in Milpitas, California, while giving a tour of data centers and information technology vendors in the Silicon Valley to a delegation of IT business people from Ramallah, Palestine.

Telecom Telematique consults in four broad categories of international telecommunications-Infrastructure, including policy and regulation, applications, and business strategy, conducting feasibility studies, technical assistance, education, and training to people in the developing and under-privileged world.

Lynne is one of those unique people who is tireless, preferring to hop on an airplane and go nose-to-nose with international agencies holding up a project, than live the comfortable life of retirement most of us aspire. It is not often we have an opportunity to meet people who are truly dedicated to helping others, with little or no regard to their own comfort.

Lynne is one of those rare people who have dedicated her life to delivering the tools needed to achieve the hopes and dreams of thousands of young people around the world.

Pacific-Tier: Lynne, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us this afternoon. Please tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got into the international telecom business.

Lynne Gallagher: I started about 20 years ago working with colleagues in Latin America as the telecom sectors were beginning to deregulate and privatize in most of the world, including areas of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. My work specialized in policy areas, assisting ministries, governments, and operators as they opened up their networks to the rest of the world.

Pacific-Tier: Tell me, what was your interest, and why did you decide to do developing country work?

Lynne Gallagher: I was first staffed with the Peace Corps back in the early 1960s, and I think I never thought I was leaving my work with the Peace Corps in various other parts of my career. Later, when I was working on various other (international) projects, I began realize that one of the missing things was lack of access to communications and information. So I wanted to apply the IT and technology to developing countries as a tool of development.

This was happening around the same time as wireless technology, such as cellular, was enabling competition in these markets with their (competitive) voice service, in addition to data networks. It’s taken many years, but cellular and data applications have changed the face of many developing countries.

Pacific-Tier: What would be your most memorable project?

Lynne Gallagher: Probably Morocco, where they used the ICT and intellectual property we delivered to help build a stronger economy, and also support further development of their democratic society. We also had a project in Uzbekistan, where we were tasked to build a fiber optic backbone network. That was quite an interesting one. We were in Central Asia, trying to bring in an infrastructure similar to that which was being built in Europe 15 years earlier, was finally being deployed in Central Asia. We were able to build along the railway, connecting the borders and major cities, out of this land-locked country for high performance, modern communications.

Pacific-Tier: Do you have anything that you would call a major success story, where you actually changed the course of a country you worked in?

Lynne Gallagher: I’m not sure we have gone that far in the telecom sector, but perhaps in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria and Romania, at a time where assisted with the education of some young, bright telecom people. We worked with them to better understand how information technology could be a catalyst for change. Many did not think that possible, as they were used to a monopoly phone company, and nothing they did could ever change the system in their countries.

Within a couple years we were pleased to see the same people participate in the development of the mobile and Internet industries. This was an example of really visible change, and while it would no doubt have occurred regardless of our efforts, it was a pleasure to see those people succeed.

Pacific-Tier: Great! What projects are you working on now?

Lynne Gallagher: We’ve recently entered a new area of applications. About ten years ago I wrote a book about eGovernment and eCommerce, and how to use ICT (Information and Communication Technology) to support efforts in those areas. We thought that eGovernment would be a good entry application for countries getting ready to implement modern ICT applications into their economy.

In Ghana we are just completing a project where we designed and delivered an eGovernment system which included not only the application, but also the wide area (national and international) network design, the data center, and developed the entire project plan as a combined public/private partnership. This project is now passed the contract bidding phase, and ready to start physical deployments. We expect to see a positive return on investment for the project within the third year.

Pacific-Tier: I know you are also involved in a project based in Ramallah, where you are supporting ICT and data center development for the Palestinian people. How do you go about getting engaged in this type of international project?

Lynne Gallagher: A couple of ways. We work in various regions, staying in close communication with people in the region’s telecom sector. We also work through various agencies that are promoting these type of developing country projects. For example, with the United States government we work with the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), which is funding the feasibility study for Palestine. We’ve done several USTDA projects in the past, and have a pretty good track record of successful projects with them.

The Ghana project for eGovernment was funded by the World Bank.

Our network of contacts in each region, where we have worked over much of the past twenty years doing a wide variety of diverse projects, also bring us introductions to new potential projects.

At that point we bring in our network or networks, consisting of subject matter experts, into each project as appropriate to meet the needs of the project. We are very excited about the data center project we are supporting for Palestine.

Pacific-Tier: It is exciting. So what is the future, what happens next for TTI?

Lynne Gallagher: We are actively engaged in Africa. We just started working on a project in Niger, looking at a small regional network that would connect many of the land-locked countries in North Africa with submarine (fiber optic cables) and gain high performance telecom access to the rest of the world. We are starting with Niger, and continuing with a link through Mali.

The future is getting these countries access to the submarine cables, building regional networks, and ultimately connecting West Africa with East Africa, and hopefully this will dramatically change the face of Africa.

Pacific-Tier: This is a wonderful story – thanks for the time!

Appreciating the Value of ICT Infrastructure in the Developing World

Sitting at a local coffee house wondering why the free wireless internet access is slow, it is easy to be indignant. Indignant that the coffee house owner could possibly be so arrogant as to provide poor quality Internet access while I camp out with an hour old latte, updating important Facebook communities with my plans for watching television this evening.

How are we supposed to live like this? Are we supposed to live like we are in a third world country while slurping our specialty coffee?

A third world country like Ghana, Vietnam, or Palestine? If I was living in say, Somalia, I would be one of 1.14% of people within the country that have Internet access. In fact, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in all of Africa there was only 4.7% of the entire population with access to Internet-enabled infrastructure or technology.

Why do we care?

Consider this – when an economy fails, and people get hungry, what is the first thing they do? Well, in most cases they fall into either a war, or become refugees. In most cases a combination of both. When you have large numbers of potentially uneducated, poorly trained refugees entering your country or society, you have a burden on your own economy and infrastructure.

Education is the KeyOn the other hand, if developing countries have access to technology, such as that made possible through Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT), there is a much better chance those countries will be better positioned to not only improve the knowledge and abilities of people in developing countries, but the potential of creating an environment to stimulate employment and trade.

The faster we advance and innovate in developed countries such as the United States, the wider the ICT knowledge and capacity gap becomes between us and the developing world. ICT drives the potential for a developing country to develop many of the basic skills needed for a country or society to compete, or at least become functionally competitive in their region.

The key to becoming a knowledge economy is education. Basic ICT infrastructure is required to bring the tools to a country allowing students and workers to gain the knowledge, skills, and training needed to function in the modern world.

Who Drives ICT In the Developing World?

Many Americans understand the value of supporting ICT infrastructure projects. Bill Woodcock from the Berkeley-based Packet Clearing House (PCH) leads a committed group of engineers who not only spend a lot of time evangelizing ICT development, but also roll up their sleeves and provide assistance in locations around the world needing direct human training and support. The PCH is a “proponent of neutral independent network interconnection and provider of (Internet) route-servers … worldwide.   The PCH provides “equipment, training, data, and operational support to organizations and individual researchers seeking to improve the quality, robustness, and accessibility of the Internet.”

The PCH team travels the globe, offering their services to any country with a need.

John Gerlich, a former “lifer” telecom engineer from Las Vegas, does similar work, spending most of his pre-retirement time giving back to the telecom community in need. Splitting his time between locations such as Ghana and Palestine, his motivation is giving people the tools to communicate. Makes no difference if the WorldBank is funding his projects, USTDA or USAID – the end justifies the means. His success is delivering a new ICT infrastructure to a location where none existed, or there was a limited ICT capability, before he arrived.

International organizations from around the world have tried promoting development of ICT, some with great success, others stuck in international bureaucracies and politics that slow down projects, and some (mostly independent non-governmental organizations) which are able to operate and contribute with little or no politics. Some very aggressive organizations supporting ICT infrastructure in developing countries include:

  • UNDP (United Nations Development Programme)
  • US AID
  • JICA (Japan)
  • ZDT (Germany)
  • US TDA
  • And others

Some Additional Thoughts on ICT and a Knowledge Based-Economy

When was the last time you went to a fast food restaurant? Did you notice the counter staff had microphones, and entered the fast food order into a computer for processing within the “cloud” of the restaurant? Is it possible you cannot even work in a fast food restaurant without a good diffusion of ICT knowledge in your life?

Now consider a world where nearly half the people cannot even function at the level that would allow them to take an order for a hamburger. As we in countries such as the US continue to focus our research and development energy on advancement of cloud computing, 4G, and determining if there is water on Mars, there is a very large percentage of the global population that would not be able to turn on a laptop computer.

The UNCTAD says that even basic access to and knowledge of basic ICT “can make a substantial and positive difference to the economic performance of developing countries’ companies and businesses.” Access to technology and ICT knowledge has a proven positive impact on productivity and business success. For developing countries, this productivity may result in improvements in environmental impacts of doing business, better quality of life, better use and exploitation of national natural resources, and better communication and appreciation of everybody’s place in a global economy and community.

Some Final Selfish Thoughts on ICT in Developing Countries

As I take my feet off the railing facing the pier jutting into the Pacific Ocean, and begin turning off my laptop computer, I see a group of recent economic immigrants scrounging for the basic necessities of life. They are happy to be in the United States, but still hungry. Coming to the United States has not solved their life problems. They are confronted with limited job opportunities based on the economic situation, lack of training, lack of language skills, and lack of education. They are preyed on by human coyotes representing gangs and the vile “underworld” of refugee life.

I know the same scene is repeated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, and other countries supporting large refugee and immigrant communities.

If those persons had access in their home countries to adequate education, ICT infrastructure, and the resulting potential business opportunities. Access to the cross-border knowledge and communication needed to support trans-national business. Access to knowledge-based jobs, and support from governments well-educated in the power of societies with strong diffusion of ICT knowledge to contribute and function in a global community.

There are many people and institutions committed to making this happen. While we continue to knock off lattes and scones at the coffee shop, they are on the edge, working with governments to develop policies, as well as breaking finger nails installing ICT infrastructure shoulder-to-shoulder in the underprivileged world.

I applaud the efforts of that community, and urge all of us to take a moment or two in between funny cat videos on YouTube to learn more about how we can make the world a better, safe, and productive place through knowledge. Rock on Bill and John, and all the others out in the global field tonight helping others.

John Savageau, Long Beach

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