Connecting people to the data makes the difference

By Tallen Harmsen, head of cyber security at IndigoCube

News reports suggest that South Africa lost around R100 billion to corruption and state capture in the past few years. President Cyril Ramaphosa has stated he’s intent on recovering at least some of it. In July, 2018, the Department of Public Works reportedly said it’s set on recovering R1,2 billion lost to corruption.

We may be forgiven for imagining that South Africa was going down the toilet during the past few years. Everywhere we turned corruption left agencies, departments, and municipalities unable to finance services and improvements to the infrastructure that knits our social fabric together. But, just as the crescendo of cries that we were all doomed grew loudest, long after many honest civil servants had been axed, Thuli Madonsela emerged as an incorruptible hero.

She, arguably more than any other South African since our esteemed Nelson Mandela, gave South Africans hope that the future might not be quite so bleak.

Hope is one of the few currencies we have left today but even that isn’t abundant. Few pragmatists seriously believe President Ramaphosa will be able to recover much of the R100 billion lost to corruption over the past 10 years. But recovering the money is, perhaps, a secondary objective. Perhaps most of us will be happy that at least some of the corrupt be brought to justice and that it sends a clear and powerful message to others who serve government and the people of South Africa that corruption will not be tolerated.

Perhaps.

Our society is not uniquely corrupt and corruption is nothing new. Ancient Rome was infamously corrupt. Buying votes during the days of the Roman Republic was a widespread practice. Julius Caesar, the famous general and statesman, is known to have financed his political aspirations through the conquest of Gaul, what is today called France.

The problem is that people are inherently corrupt and those who achieve positions of power get to demonstrate that corruption. Check out the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. And look at a study by Katherine A. DeCelles, published in Journal of Applied Psychology, that suggests people are intrinsically corrupt and, based on supporting attributes, act accordingly when they get into power.

Our societies have always had to deal with corruption. The differences in how successful we are depend on the tools at our disposal. Checks and balances of institutions and individuals are important. But they have to be backed up by supporting and corroborating evidence.

Anti-fraud and corruption hotlines are not unique to South Africa. Corruption Watch reports that there was a 25% increase in reports of corruption in 2017, which was a pivotal moment in the fight against institutionalised corruption.

South Africans have the will to report corruption. What we need now are the facts to back up the claims so that the guilty can be prosecuted.

New and emerging technologies help give us those facts in the data they find, process, manipulate and store. We are able to gather a volume of data unprecedented in human history but, more importantly, we also have the sophisticated technologies that can intelligently help us make sense of it all.

We can find, via social media, for example, that someone was in a certain location at a specific time and date, perhaps with other known persons. That could be compelling evidence. Or we can track comments of hackers online that they previously thought would be lost in the huge ocean of comments made by people in online forums. We are now able, through sophisticated analysis engines and artificial intelligence (AI) platforms, to connect seemingly innocuous events to a complex pattern of activities that can establish motive and actions and link people to deeds. Or we can simply trawl petabytes of financial records to find discrepancies or inconsistencies.

So, while the need for people to still act against the corrupt has not been replaced by any number of technologies or processes, we do have new tools in the arsenal to fight corruption. With numbers such as the R100 billion reportedly lost to corruption and our president’s clear stand against the corrupt, it’s never been a better time to be incorruptible and be able to put these technologies to good use.