Karen Abudinen Abuchaibe is pressed for time. As the head of Colombia’s Ministry of Technologies, Information, and Communications (MinTIC), she has a busy schedule and a broad mandate. She is overseeing the deployment of the country’s heralded Covid-19 tracking app, forging partnerships with overseas tech giants like Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, and launching an initiative to connect 70% of Colombian households to the internet, which the government plans to achieve by 2022. Currently, only about 50% of the country has access to the internet, and it is particularly limited in rural areas.
Abudinen is particularly focused on that last issue. Over the course of her interview with Rest of World, the minister managed to bring every question back to bringing Colombians online. “Today, what the people need is connectivity and technology,” she said. “When you go to the streets, when you go to the barrios, when you have a feel of the people, this is what they ask for.”
Connectivity is crucial for Colombia. When President Iván Duque took office in 2018, he vowed to reshape Colombia around what he called an “orange economy,” which focuses on creative industries based on intellectual property (from books to gastronomy to startups), as opposed to the more volatile commodities markets such as oil, which, as of 2018, accounted for one-fifth of the government’s revenues.
Building out tech infrastructure — the routers, the cellular networks, and even the roads to transport hardware — is key to establishing Duque’s creative economy. Abudinen’s Misión TIC 2022 plan would additionally train 100,000 programmers; another called NavegaTIC would provide tens of thousands of pre-loaded SIM cards to students and entrepreneurs; and a third, Ruta STEM 2021, would help teachers develop their STEM curricula. But above all, the emphasis is on connecting Colombians to the internet. All of these fall under what her ministry refers to as “internet con sentido,” an opaque term that translates to “internet with purpose.”
Colombia is undergoing one of its most turbulent periods in recent history, with protests first erupting in late April over a controversial tax reform plan and evolving into outrage over police violence. Amid these demonstrations, there have been widespread accusations from human rights groups and activists of governmental surveillance and internet shutdowns. Abudinen’s rush toward connectivity risks overlooking the principal concerns that come with any new technology: privacy, surveillance, and the intrusion of the state.
After studying to become a lawyer at Colombia’s University of the North, Abudinen began her career at the Inter-American Development Bank, in Washington, D.C. Abudinen said that her time abroad informed her approach to how the West works with aspiring tech hubs such as Colombia. After all, the relationship between the U.S. and aspiring tech hubs such as Colombia can often be a one-sided one, with U.S. companies leveraging global salary disparities to hire cheaper talent abroad.
She views outsourcing as a necessary component of developing Colombia’s tech sector. To date, Colombia has produced just one tech unicorn: the e-commerce giant Rappi, and much of the tech sector in the country relies on supporting bigger companies abroad. Being an outsourcing hub does not put Colombia at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — a term the minister frequently uses to describe the next technological leap forward — but it at least gives the country a junior place at the table as part of the “value chain.”
“Outsourcing benefits a country like the United States and also benefits us Colombias as well, because each has its experience and each has its talent and knowledge. Above all else, with our intention to continue evolving and being at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that requires that we have the infrastructure and the talent to continue forward,” said Abudinen.
On some level, a single-minded focus on connectivity makes sense: For Colombia to achieve its Fourth Industrial Revolution, it needs to get its citizens on the internet.
And the country has made good progress under Abudinen: The ministry has led the investment of over $1 million for connectivity over the course of the Duque administration since 2018. That may sound like a small amount, but that investment has brought internet to 345,000 homes, many in previously unreachable parts of the country.
“That is what the ministry is looking to achieve,” said Abudinen. “The ministry is always aiming to protect people’s rights, open up opportunities, and connect this country.”
But the agency has failed elsewhere, namely when it comes to digital privacy. The country’s Covid-19 app, which the ministry helped develop under Abudinen’s predecessor, was initially meant to improve contact tracing and to supply information about vaccines and transmission prevention. The National Institute of Health called this “participatory surveillance,” a rosy term that was recently critiqued in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, especially for the lack of information on how the data would be used.
Colombians, in part afraid of surveillance, were hesitant to adopt the app. A year after its launch, the Colombian digital rights organization Fundación Karisma reported that it had very low usage, with approximately 860,000 people reporting their health status out of a population of 50 million.
“I believe the app had the desired impact at the right time,” replied Abudinen. “Like all communication through technology, it was the fastest, most agile, and secure way that the government could have this information in real time to make better decisions.”
Surveillance is a clear and present issue in other government programs that intersect with Abudinen’s mandate. Activists and journalists have reported that their communications and social media presence were being monitored well before the current spate of protests. The practice, known as ciberpatrullaje, or cyber-patrolling — a virtual police force that trawls the web for dissident behavior — ostensibly falls under the technology ministry’s purview, as “the entity in charge of designing, adopting, and promoting the policies, plans, programs, and projects of the information and communications technologies sector.”
Abudinen told Rest of World that these practices fall under the Communications Regulation Commission, reiterating “that this is a transparent ministry, an efficient ministry, and a ministry focused on connecting.” She added that she denounced the violence and vandalism of the protests — a common refrain used by the Duque administration to justify the police’s heavy-handed reaction to the protesters.
“Look, I’m going to tell you one thing — I always think about the people,” she said. “If we don’t deliver these tools, the people cannot be prepared, and surely they will not be able to make the best decisions.”
Even if ciberpatrullaje falls beyond her remit, surely privacy must be a core preoccupation within her ministry? One of her key initiatives is handing SIM cards to thousands of students as a means of providing them with cellular data and prepaid minutes. She didn’t indicate that she was particularly worried about how government spying could affect the success of the program.
“Look, we’re respectful of privacy,” she said. “We are not able to access your information, nor the content, nor media, of any citizen. Every citizen is free.”
“But we also have responsibilities,” she continued. “Because this is not only about rights — we also have responsibilities to build and to train.”