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Opinions of Thursday, 2 November 2017

Columnist: Adjoa Amoakohene

Interoperability, cybercrime and value-for-money

Government’s quest to enhance the use of ICT to accelerate Ghana's developmental processes including increased financial inclusion, improve security in electronic financial transactions and proper national, personal and property identification system became the subject of a barrage of criticism over the last few days.

Even though some of the criticisms came from political opponents, there were others which emerged from technically savvy and independent-minded professionals whose suggestions and recommendations cannot be simply ignored. Two recent occurrences triggered the seeming “attack” on on-going information communication technology-assisted interventions.

First was the launching by the H.E the President, Nana Akufo Addo of the Digital Property Address System, also known as Ghana Post GPS. The motive behind this project is very laudable as it is intended to give proper identification to places of abode of all citizens, businesses and commercial properties alike, to reduce the incidence of swindling, inability to access bank loans due to lack of proper address among others. But the cost of the application or service and how it operates have given cause for worry to many Ghanaians. Indeed, many have said the application is substandard with lots of deficiencies and therefore does not warrant the expenditure incurred on it.

The second thing had to do with fraudulent activities associated with mobile money transactions. It is not a new practice but it seems to have assumed a higher or greater proportion in very recent times with many subscribers and patrons of mobile money services complaining bitterly about the theft of their monies. The police cybercrime directorate confirmed the magnitude of the situation as well as the involvement of some staff of some telecommunication companies in what they perceive to be a conspiracy. And here, the blame has been about the influx of unregistered sim cards, increase in mobile money transactions, suspicious activities of some Telco workers as well as illiteracy about mobile money crime and cybersecurity.

But the raging discussions have also brought to fore what government through the Bank of Ghana tried to do on the road towards the introduction of the Interoperability concept, the reason for which Sibton Switch Systems was selected among three companies to build a national switch to interconnect all other platforms for mobile and electronic payments and transactions.

Even though the operator of the switch, certainly a private sector entity, was to incur all the expenses on the switch, the new government claimed their cost was too much and feared same would be transferred onto customers through tariffs. That conclusion was politically motivated and the Digital Address System has confirmed this. Many often, our decisions are dictated by political expediency instead of the common good for the country. In the process, quality is compromised. Maybe someone should have taken time to explore the reasons behind the cost of the switch Sibton proposed to build and has indeed built to better appreciate their proposal.

The Bank of Ghana has some of the most brilliant and smart technocrats who cannot easily be swindled. It is not also surprising why the government has not been able to publish the findings of EOCO Investigations into that contract, but from the criticisms of the Property Address System, it is clear government opted for a cheaper and quick-fix option to the problem. Good and secure ICT products and services are expensive. To quote the President of renowned Think-Tank, IMANI, Franklin Cudjoe, “We shouldn’t hurry our President to be launching products that have not been properly verified”. Interoperability is a sine qua non to our cashless and paperless structures we are seeking to build as a nation.

And even though both government and the Bank of Ghana have been quite over the Sibton Switch assisted-Interoperability-interface, there are some brilliant benefits it would have offered the country. First, instead of the use of the current situation where Mobile Money Vendors are compelled to use multiple mobile phones and other devices, Interoperability will allow only a phone or a device and this certainly reduces the risk of fraudulent activities. Secondly, the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) is proposing the deployment of Point Of Sale (POS) devices to check tax avoidance and non-payments among commercial entities who use a mobile phone and other POS devices for sales and payments. But in a well interoperable environment, this might not be necessary and the GRA is saved the money it would have used in purchasing some monitoring devices.

Thirdly, the Sibton Switch is robustly built to have mechanisms for verification to ward-off fraudsters and hackers. This is a switch with its own power supply so that Dumsor will not even affect it in any way. Apart from the main Data Center, it has more than two buck-up points, just in case of any attack or loss of data. As a best practice the world over, having a private entity operate a switch of that nature ensures controls and manipulations are avoided and this is ensuring the security and integrity of the entire interoperability system.

The National Communications Authority (NCA) has hinted at plans to re-register all sim cards. It is a brilliant move and government should proceed with it but an interoperable system like the one being proposed by Sibton will certainly create a common avenue for all card users, especially government workers, national service personnel and students who use e-zwich cards for greater opportunities to make payments. And once the market women and the commercial car drivers are brought on board, greater inclusion is achieved. Again, the government must cease the numerous opportunities offered by electronic or IT-assisted financial transactions to the economy, to resource the Police Cybercrime outfit to enable them to detect, arrest and prosecute fraudsters.

Public education is very important and considering the vulnerability and low literacy level of our people, customer sensitization, and general awareness creation is paramount. But while at it, the telecommunications companies may have to do more to strengthen and streamline their internal security, surveillance and early actions. This is so important because, interoperability will certainly increase the volume of mobile money transactions and as a primary conduit and key stakeholder, an urgent housecleaning will deepen customer trust and confidence. But I need to emphasize the numerous job opportunities to be created when Interoperability come on stream and the biggest beneficiary becomes the economy of Ghana.

The Property Address System, the Sim Card Registration and the Mobile Money Payment lapses must help us to get the Interoperability right and if it will succeed, the role of the private sector is going to be key. It is standard practice around the world that governments wean themselves off the financing of such projects.

Through the central banks, the government only controls the fees and charges as part of the regulatory mechanisms. A private company, Margins Systems, is said to be playing an important role in the ongoing efforts by the National Identification Authority (NIA) to have a proper National Identification for all citizens.

Subah Info Solutions, another private company has been assisting both the GRA and the NCA in some call monitoring and revenue assurance works, just as a private company worked on the Digital Address System. The question then is why do we want to have a state agency, the Ghana Interbank Payment, and Settlement Systems (GhIPSS) to do Interoperability, an act which is contrary to best practice all over the world?

A word to the wise is enough.