Technology alone can’t root out corruption

New forms of petty corruption that do not require in-person interaction emerge due to evolving technology. For example, digital bribery, extortion and blackmail are now possible, especially due to authorised and unauthorised access to digital information that corrupt officials may have.

Rakesh Kumar
Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engg, University of Illinois

TECHNOLOGICAL solutions are being used to target corruption all over the world. In India, a large amount of effort and resources are being expended into technology-based programmes whose primary goal is to remove corruption. The popular belief is that technological solutions such as government-enabled marketplaces, direct benefit transfer, digitisation of information, and increasing automation in government programmes and services (procurement, taxation, policing, judiciary, etc.) increase transparency, reduce discretion, and eliminate intermediaries, leading to overall reduced corruption. Also, technology is assumed to help with detection, leading to deterrence.

Is corruption actually reduced through the employment of technology? It is important to ask the question because a technology-driven approach to target graft may be crowding out other anti-corruption programmes and institutions. 

Corruption requires motivation, justification (or rationalisation), and opportunity. Conventionally, socio-economic factors (inequality, low salaries, closed economy, low media freedom, relatively low level of education etc.) have largely determined motivation and justification for indulging in corruption, while the specifics of delivery of a programme or a service have impacted the opportunity for graft. Does this opportunity always decrease when employing technological solutions? 

Consider petty corruption, where low-level officials exploit the asymmetry of information and power for extracting payment, favours or services. Automation and direct delivery of programmes and services can indeed help in reducing such corruption since these officials are circumvented (or exposure to them is minimised). However, the implementation of these technological solutions is often flawed and leads to both residual and, in some cases, new forms of corruption. A recent study showed that direct payment initiated by the Indian government was, in fact, neither direct nor instantaneous. Several new intermediaries — bank staff, private payment agencies and banking correspondents — were needed to enable these payments. Of course, these new intermediaries could increase overall corruption. In another example, a corruption scandal in Afghanistan involved an officer registering SIM cards in subordinates’ names in order to collect their direct money transfers. This new form of graft could undermine any benefit from direct payment.

New forms of petty corruption that do not require in-person interaction also emerge due to evolving technology. For example, digital bribery, extortion and blackmail are now possible, especially due to authorised and unauthorised access to digital information that corrupt officials may have. Similarly, technology often increases the complexity of systems and processes. So, those who understand technology and systems may exploit the asymmetry in corrupt ways. The increased complexity also decreases the possibility of detection, weakening deterrence against corruption.

These arguments apply even to systemic (or endemic) corruption where the bad actors do not act individually but are widespread symptoms of a weak and corrupt organisation or process. In an endemically corrupt system, technology facilitates illicit financial flows. For example, it is easy to use technologies such as bitcoin to hide corruption by transferring money anonymously, untraceably and remotely (without physical presence) from one account to another. These transfers can easily span national boundaries. Similarly, online gambling, massive multiplayer online games and alternative banks that support cryptocurrency exchange and peer-to-peer payments (Revolut, Monzoetc.) can be used for money-laundering.  End-to-end encrypted messaging technologies such as Whatsapp and Instagram, and anonymous communication technologies such as Tor and Darknet further facilitate corrupt dealings without fear of detection. While data mining tools are increasingly being used by governments, such tools either have high false positives or high false negatives. Considering privacy laws and the cost and length of court cases in most jurisdictions, these tools are not much of a deterrent.

Technology may be even less effective in reducing ‘grand’ corruption (at the highest levels of the government). When the lawmakers are corrupt, they can create new instruments and policies to support existing corruption and enable its new forms. No amount of technology can serve as a deterrent. Similarly, vested interests can both bend state laws and influence them in such settings. Legal but corrupt activities such as initiating and approving projects to funnel resources to cronies can also go unchecked by technology.

Overall, while some forms of petty or systemic corruption may go down with technology, other forms may continue to thrive, and, in some cases, increase. Besides, while technology impacts vertical corruption (characterised by frequent but small corruption transactions with citizens), horizontal corruption (marked by infrequent but large transactions with commercial or high-worth entities) may largely be unimpacted. 

Corruption is a social and economic problem. A multi-pronged approach that targets the entire corruption triangle (motivation, justification and opportunity) through different programmes and institutions is needed. Techno-utopianism that exaggerates the potential impact of technology on reducing corruption is not only wasteful, but also dangerous.

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