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Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

A digital wallet is the first step: how Estonia built its digital state

By Vaseline May30,2024
A digital wallet is the first step: how Estonia built its digital state

Erika Piirmets has been a digital citizen since childhood. When she started primary school in Estonia in the late 1990s, her class switched from paper to digital diaries. She got her first taste of the digital state in high school when she registered for national exams online. She has never signed a physical employment contract or seen a paper tax return form, and she casts her votes during elections electronically.

Estonia is now home to thousands of citizens who consider digital as the standard. The Baltic state with 1.3 million inhabitants has become a role model for the digitalization of state services around the world.

But the country has no plans to stop there, according to Piirmets, who now works as a digital transformation consultant for the country’s e-government organization eEstonia. The government is currently working on new mobile apps and digital identity services, including the country’s answer to the European Digital Identity Wallet (EUDI), the EU’s attempt to enable identity authentication for every citizen on the continent.

“The chance that people will not use an electronic identity is quite low because we are such a mature digital government,” says Piirmets. Biometric update.

Estonia’s rapid success in digitalization is due to the early introduction of electronic ID cards in the early 2000s. The country made the political decision to make them mandatory to achieve a critical uptake of eIDs at a time when there were no digital services that could attract people. Today, the country allows its citizens to perform virtually every government service online. One last thing Estonians cannot do online is divorce, but this will change by the end of 2024.

Meanwhile, in addition to eID, the government has developed authentication methods, including Mobile ID based on a SIM card and Smart-ID, a private application published by SK ID Solution that functions on a pre-verified device. In 2014, the country also included an e-residency for non-citizens of Estonia in its digital identity system.

Estonia’s digital ID ecosystem is about to get even more options. Last year, the country tried to launch a native wallet app called mRiik that collected government services. The app was created in collaboration with Ukraine, leveraging their experience in creating its e-government system Diia, which relies on a version of the Estonian distributed interoperability system X-Road.

Due to incompatibility issues and legal hurdles, mRiik was abandoned, but the state is working on a new app that should see the light of day this summer. The name is still unknown.

“We already have biometric passports and now we are also trying to digitize documents in a way that application-based ID cards, passports, various documentation and certificates would be legally feasible,” says Piirmets. “We are changing the law for that, but we are also adopting electronic identities or trying to bring them into the application format as well.”

Another application in the works is a European Union-compatible digital wallet that can store login credentials and documents – the data provider. Digital identity company Cybernetica, which is working with Idemia, is currently building the interface of that wallet.

“One is identification and the other is enabling services. They must be compatible with each other,” says Piirmets. Currently, the country is unable to produce a single app that provides documents, services and authentication, she added.

Estonia is also working on a third native app that brings electronic voting to mobile. But the government has discussed whether Estonia could do without some of its digital IDs.

“Regarding electronic ID status, we cannot say with certainty at this time what the legal requirements will be. It is possible that the obligation to have at least one electronic ID will disappear in the future,” says Madis Tapupere, Chief Technology Officer at the Digital Government Department of the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.

Estonia’s e-governance project is not only busy at home. The Estonian Center for International Development Cooperation (ESTDEV), a government-funded agency, has brought Estonian-style digitalization to other countries, including those in Africa.

The country is also active in the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS), an international consortium that implements X-Road and aims to make digital services available through a national data exchange.

The EU is currently working to create standards for data interoperability across borders and build data spaces, the continent’s attempt to create a single market for data. Estonia shows an example of this with electronic prescriptions that allow people to buy medicines in countries such as Finland, Poland, Croatia, Portugal, Spain and Greece.

Another pilot project is academic certificates with France, which would allow education data to be moved across the border when a student applies to college. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is also building a framework for real-time economic data.

“These are the current bilateral pilots that are taking place, but it’s all about political will,” says Piirmets.

Countries have been slow and cautious in adopting these solutions because there is no single concrete platform for European data sharing, she adds. But this could happen soon and data spaces could be the solution.

“We are going step by step and having the digital wallet is the first step,” says Piirmets.

Article topics

digital government | digital identity | digital wallets | eID | Estonia | interoperability | SK ID solutions

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