back to article My life under Estonia's digital government

There is much government talk about the economic importance of enabling a digital society. Yet little coherent in the UK seems to materialise – bits here and there imperfectly integrated and with insufficient commitment. Just think of the multiple UK initiatives over the years. That such slow progress is a given calls into …

  1. Dr Stephen Jones
    FAIL

    He must be new to this

    "Estonia proves that a digital society is practical today."

    Estonia proves that you can cripple a country that tries to do "E-Government" at will, because it has made services that were once secure and distributed insecure and centralised. The 2007 cyber-attacks on Estonia are not mentioned here, and should be.

    1. sabroni Silver badge

      Re: because it has made services that were once secure and distributed insecure and centralised.

      That's the opposite of what the article claims, principle 1: decentralisation combined with interconnectivity: there is no central database; every stakeholder (government department, business or even individual) has the freedom to choose its own system in its own time with the guiding principle being that all participating systems be able to work together

      You can't both be right. Got any references to back up your "insecure and centralised" claim? The article doesn't have any....

  2. Irongut

    "digitising the police now enables a police officer in a patrol car to verify a car’s legality and insurance by querying the car registration system."

    How is that any different to UK police querying the PNC? It sounds exactly the same to me but without the magic fairy dust of "digital".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Presumably the "digital" bit is the porky digits on the Estonian plod's hands as he types the number in. Here in the UK the car camera will already have read the plate by ANPR, automatically checked the police, insurance and DVLA databases and flagged it up without the rozzers having to lift a finger.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    how well does it scale up?

    plus, in Estonia they started with a clean slate, while the UK landscape is already patchwork upon patchwork of more or less loosely connected (or not) systems run by various agencies. Erase and start from scratch? It just won't happen, no matter what benefits, perceived or real.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: how well does it scale up?

      "Erase and start from scratch?"

      Isn't that what's happening - badly?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: how well does it scale up?

        yes, it is happening, but with no clear understanding (probably beyond human comprehension) of what there is in place, and what we want to achieve. It's happening as in bits falling apart are mixed with fresh lick of paint stick together happening.

  4. Captain Mainwaring

    Jobsworths say no

    To implement an end-to-end, integrated government IT set up here in Blighty would take a major shift in Civil Service culture and outlook, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Most online government services that I have personally used seem to be a digitization of existing system systems and practices, with no apparent sideways integration with other departments and services. To get to a true cross government IT platform will probably require a major re-organisation of how the Civil service and government departments work and relate to each other. At the end of the day, widespread computerization in central and local government is going to cost many white-collar workers their job and dismantle many an empire that has taken many decades of careful construction to build up. Given the prevalence of Sir Humphrey types that form the upper echelons, I can't see that there is going to be any great appetite for radical re-organisation that is likely to be needed.

    1. Nifty

      Re: Jobsworths say no

      Saved me the typing

  5. NeverMindTheBullocks

    Re: the previous posts

    The 2007 attacks on Estonia were in 2007. That's 8 years ago now, and since then there has been no similar incidents affacting that country. Lessons were learned from those attacks, not just in Estonia but accross NATO. Estonia now hosts the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE). In the last 8 years Estonia's digital society has survived and prospered, it has not resulted in the loss of services or other disruption.

    ANPR in the UK only provides information on vehicles that are already flagged as being "of interest" to the Police. If they stop a vehicle that is not already on the system they have to request a specific check be carried out before they can take action. This means multiple calls to DVLA, Insurance Companies and others. The Estonian System is real time, see the number plate, check the records, take action.

    Estonia didnt start with a clean slate, they started from the same position as most other European governments, including the UK. What they did was deliver what UK politicians have been promising and failing on for years. To take the disparate government systems and integrate them in such a way that data exchange becomes a practical and realistic proposition. There was no rip and prelace process, they used middleware technology and services to allow them to communicate in a meaningful way as well as delivering brand new services such as the e-ID system. It worked becasue they had clear principles from the outset and they stuck to them.

    All of this is possible, what it takes is political vision and the will to follow it through. Having a proper understanding of delivering public IT systems and being able to properly run procurement and contracts would help as well. Sadly successive UK governments seem to be unable to do any of these things.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: the previous posts

      "ANPR in the UK only provides information on vehicles that are already flagged as being "of interest" to the Police. "

      Not true, and hasn't been true for some years. You can see this in action on those dreary reality traffic cop shows, where the plods with car mounted ANPR are alerted to passing cars being untaxed, un-MOT'd, or uninsured even if they aren't of interest. And if you still doubt it, there's some UK police website FAQ's on ANPR that are quite clear that the technology is used to pick up those "minor" offences. Or you could go back to the 2005 Register article explaining about the plans to roll this all out.

      Not all ANPR kit is wired up to all databases, so it doesn't follow that the police will send a snatch squad if a Tesco forecourt image shared via the National ANPR Data Centre shows your untaxed car filling up, but if you think you're clean simply by lack of a VOSI flag, you're wrong.

      1. NeverMindTheBullocks

        Re: the previous posts - ANPR

        You might want to have a read of this then.

        https://www.police.uk/information-and-advice/automatic-number-plate-recognition/

        "How it works

        As a vehicle passes an ANPR camera, its registration number is read and instantly checked against database records of vehicles of interest. Police officers can intercept and stop a vehicle, check it for evidence and, where necessary, make arrests. A record for all vehicles passing by a camera is stored, including those for vehicles that are not known to be of interest at the time of the read that may in appropriate circumstances be accessed for investigative purposes. The use of ANPR in this way has proved to be important in the detection of many offences, including locating stolen vehicles, tackling uninsured vehicle use and solving cases of terrorism, major and organised crime. It also allows officers’ attention to be drawn to offending vehicles whilst allowing law abiding drivers to go about their business unhindered."

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Meh

          Re: the previous posts - ANPR

          As a vehicle passes an ANPR camera, its registration number is read and instantly checked against database records of vehicles of interest.

          That would be any vehicle that has no Car Tax or MOT yet hasn't been declared SORN then?

          1. NeverMindTheBullocks

            Re: the previous posts - ANPR

            No, a vehicle of interest is one that has been reported stolen has previously been associated with criminal activity, or is connected to a known or wanted individual. There is no link between the ANPR database and the DVLA systems for tracking registration, MOT etc. If a vehicle is stopped these can be manually checked or they can be checked if a vehicle is reported for other reasons.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: the previous posts

      "All of this is possible, what it takes is political vision and the will to follow it through. Having a proper understanding of delivering public IT systems and being able to properly run procurement and contracts would help as well. Sadly successive UK governments seem to be unable to do any of these things."

      Did the Estonian govt do this in house or farm it out? Farming it out here would involve the usual suspects whilst doing it in house would bring on panic attacks due to having to recruit people who know what they're doing.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        WTF?

        Re: the previous posts

        "Did the Estonian govt do this in house or farm it out? Farming it out here would involve the usual suspects whilst doing it in house would bring on panic attacks due to having to recruit people who know what they're doing."

        OMG! Estonia it's a country full of clueless panicked people and they need the wonderful experience of the UK IT sector!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: the previous posts

      Spot on, NeverMind. I would just like to say, more than political vision, what it probably would take in the UK is NOT give the project to those twats at Accenture and similar scum. Apart from not knowing what they do in the first place, it's not like they're going to hand back a three-page report saying "just implement this protocol and this API as and when time and budget permits on each individual system and you'll be fine. That'll be £35.90 for the advice please."

      You would think that anyone with any sort of vision would head over to Tallinn and speak with, maybe hire, a few of the chaps who've already got the t-shirt.

      And note, btw, how it's perfectly possible to have a so-called e-government, even e-ID, and still be mindful and respectful of privacy and personal data.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    going in the morning. Last time I was there, was just shocked by the contrast between the useless but charged-for Wifi on train to airport in UK, and ubiquitous free (even on bus!) Wifi there.

    As for the rest of the e-residency, waiting for an appointment, and it will be interesting to see how it goes !

  7. Graham Marsden

    "Today’s Estonian citizen can (though he or she does not have to)"

    Wheras in this country it will be "Today’s British citizen can (though he or she does not have to yet...)"

  8. Mayhem

    ID Card

    The other key requirement for this process is a unique ID for every person, here in the form of a card and a USB stick.

    Europeans are generally quite happy with carrying an ID. English people are pathologically opposed to the idea. The convenience and advantages are obvious, but it would still be a VERY hard sell in this country, even without the past history of Gordon Brown's little toy.

    1. Captain Mainwaring

      Re: ID Card

      " The other key requirement for this process is a unique ID for every person, here in the form of a card and a USB stick. "

      Whenever I do any interactions with various government departments, both national and local, I'm often asked for my National Insurance number as part of the transaction. This is a unique reference number that most individuals are issued with to work, pay tax and other official functions too. In some cases, I've even been asked to produce my Passport or Driving Licence as well to prove I am the person standing before them. As a majority of people these days already have one or both of these official ID documents, a separate ID card and it's multi-billion pound cost all seems a little bit unnecessary to me. And that's before you factor in the privacy and civil rights issues that go with their introduction.

      1. Mayhem

        Re: ID Card

        A National Insurance number is an identifier for an individual, but you can't actually prove that it is you - it doesn't have a photograph or name associated with it at a level that most departments can access.

        A Passport or driving licence will prove your identity, but the document ID generally isn't linked to any other system so doesn't link you with your various government records outside of their specific responsibilities.

        The reason for an ID card is to effectively supplement all the disparate other IDs you may possess and permit you to reference any service you are associated with without having to carry all your cards/documents. It should not supplant them - at least initially - you should be able to present any or all of them.

        For example, European ID cards are accepted travel documents in the wider European area, but are not valid for global destinations like Africa or Asia where they need a passport.

        The key point about the Estonian system is it enables universal proof of identity and storage of records while providing transparent proof of access and lack of tampering. THAT is unique in the European sphere today.

        1. Captain Mainwaring

          Re: ID Card

          Most National ID cards that I have personally seen and I have seen most of them from the EU, don't even have the bearer's home address on it. This includes the aborted UK ID card that was scrapped by the last coalition government back in 2010. What this means in reality is that when the service that you are applying for needs proof of residential address, ie bank accounts, grants, welfare payments etcetera, a separate document such as a council tax or utilities bill is required to prove where you actually live. This hardly makes the ID card a one-stop shop document that it is mooted to be. For general use, where nationality is not a particular issue, A UK photocard driving licence is probably more useful as it also includes the bearer's home address as well. Replacing disparate numbering systems, NHS, Driving licence, National Insurance, to name but a few, would be a large and costly undertaking at a time when most government departments are having their budgets slashed. If a country is starting from scratch, then yes a unique personal identifier is probably the best way to go.

          I have worked in HR for the past ten years or so and have had the task of checking the identity and immigration credentials of all job applicants from all over the world, but mainly from the EU. From a UK perspective at least, a National ID card is little more than a sawn off Passport at best. It is also an easier document to make a convincing forgery of than a modern Biometric Passport, which usually has hidden watermarks and security features spread over multiple pages.

          1. Mayhem

            Re: ID Card

            Most National ID cards that I have personally seen and I have seen most of them from the EU, don't even have the bearer's home address on it.

            I would never want my proof of identity device to have my address on it. Otherwise every time you change address you need a new device. As someone who rents a flat, I've changed address four times in seven years. I replaced my drivers licence once, when I moved most recently, and then only because I lost the paper part of my licence.

            A better question would be why opening a bank account requires proof of residence at all. Proof of identity, sure. But an address is a pointless exercise now that you are no longer associated with a specific branch for your services. Not to mention the trap it puts on poor people, who often have no fixed abode, but can't get one because they can't get bank accounts, et cetera.

            Replacing disparate numbering systems, NHS, Driving licence, National Insurance, to name but a few, would be a large and costly undertaking at a time when most government departments are having their budgets slashed.

            I think you missed the part about all government services being required to work together. Each can retain their own systems, identifiers and databases, they don't even need to alter anything internally. Each would simply need to provide an open EDI interface that the secured middleware layer can communicate with. The middleware layer handles the translation between departments. So you start with something straightforward, like the driving licence system. The middleware layer associates the pre-existing drivers licence number with the ID number you have created for the relevant individual and boom, they know they are talking about the same person. You can then add other government departments one at a time and confirm the interoperability. So your principle expense initially is in the middleware layer. Each additional service added is cheaper and cheaper, as the underlying platform is already there.

            1. Captain Mainwaring

              Re: ID Card

              " A better question would be why opening a bank account requires proof of residence at all. Proof of identity, sure. But an address is a pointless exercise now that you are no longer associated with a specific branch for your services. Not to mention the trap it puts on poor people, who often have no fixed abode, but can't get one because they can't get bank accounts, et cetera."

              You try opening an account in most high street banks without providing proof of address and 9 times out of ten you'll be left standing out in the rain counting your pennies back into your trouser pocket. Right or wrong, that just how life is here in the UK and is not just limited to opening a bank account either. My central point is that ID cards commonly issued on the continent of Europe, don't show residential address and as such are not the all in one master identity document they are frequently trumped up to be. As far as I can see, an ID card does nothing that an ordinary Passport cannot do. I suppose you can easily slip an ID card into your wallet after you've finished using it, but a Passport allows you to travel the world over and is not just limited to travel in EU countries.

              I do take your point about issuing a common unique identifier, perhaps a long number that could cross-reference all the other government service account numbers. Whether there is the political will, expertise or money to undertake such a project is another question though. But if that process is linked to the universal roll out of ID cards across the whole nation, I doubt if it will ever come to pass.

              1. Mayhem

                Re: ID Card

                My central point is that ID cards commonly issued on the continent of Europe, don't show residential address and as such are not the all in one master identity document they are frequently trumped up to be. As far as I can see, an ID card does nothing that an ordinary Passport cannot do

                So you seem to be conflating Proof of Identity with Proof of Residence. Which are two different requirements. Recall the original Estonian system provides proof of identity for access to government services. Holding the card does “not entail full legal residency or citizenship or right of entry to Estonia.

                Which means it isn't a Passport, which is a globally recognised legal travel document and proof of citizenship. It may be accepted as such within the EU, but legally it isn't.

                What it does appear to do is allow an Estonian to avoid having to carry multiple valid legal documents for every service they use - in the UK that would be the equivalent of a drivers licence, student id, NHS number, NI number, banking two factor device, et cetera and only have to carry a single ID card.

                Each department that interacts with the cardholder has a device that can talk to the card system, and the middleware on the card system can then talk to their own systems.

                Since the banks and utilities also have access to the system, they don't need external proof of residence - the system itself knows where you live and work and the cardholder can approve that information being made available to the company asking.

                The UK has the same idea, but every service relies on composite keys manufactured out of disparate information that the user has to pull together every time they need to establish something new. The Estonian ID system lets you do that once and never need to do it again.

                The key difference is where the balance of power lies. In the current UK system, the individual continually has to prove themselves to the arms of the state, though combined the state has access to most information about the individual. In the Estonian system, the state formally knows everything about the individual, but the individual has control over who sees the information and under what conditions.

            2. Robert McMurray

              Re: ID Card

              Here in Germany, national ID cards have the holder's current address printed on the reverse side. This is necessary when picking up a parcel from the post office (no ID, no parcel). As a Brit, I have to flash my UK passport and my German blood-donor's card which shows my address.

              If card-holders move, they go to the local town hall at their new location to register their new address (a legal requirement here) where the new address is stuck on over the old one.

              My objection to residential addresses on national ID cards is that if a card is lost, it may be found by a burglar or worse.

              Tangentally, the homeless - who are also obliged to have ID cards - have their cards printed with the official German version of "No fixed abode".

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: ID Card

      > Europeans are generally quite happy with carrying an ID. English people are pathologically opposed to the idea.

      Honestly, I think that what most people (one included) are opposed to is a centralised register of people. IDs do not have to be centralised and, indeed, often are not (Germany and Italy come to mind as two examples)

  9. Barry Mahon

    Very interesting, shows what a proper policy and safeguards can achieve. I was there on an IT project just a few months after the Russkies left. The Minister of Comms was an older person but his son, a 20something, was already writing the plan that has led to where they are now.

    Comments are also good, shows that there can be a proper overall confidence in systems.

  10. fpoling

    What the success of digital government in Estonia tells is that the scale matters. There is a big difference between digitizing a country with 1.3 people versus that with 64 millions people. Even in Norway, with just 5 millions in population and strong traditions of local governance, a slow progress with digital everything could be tracked to the scaling issues.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Eh, you never know, it might be like dominoes - Estonia has very close ties to Finland (I believe Estonians are now the biggest minority in Finland); Finland in turn has very close ties to Sweden; and once Sweden adopts the system, the rest of Scandinavia will probably follow, then Northern Europe and then most of the rest. The main hold-outs will likely be Italy and maybe Spain, although I'm projecting maybe two decades into the future, the politics may have changed by then. Also, interesting to note that a rather large chunk of the Estonian revenues comes from IT-governance consultancy to New Democracies in the South and East.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > The main hold-outs will likely be Italy and maybe Spain, although I'm projecting maybe two decades into the future, the politics may have changed by then.

      Spain does have a quite extensive e-government system, certainly miles ahead of the UK. The problem is with their implementation, which is as clunky and hideous as you could possibly imagine.

      My vote for the laggers would go to France and UK. And my vote for the most pervasive, expensive, and inconvenient system to eventually go live goes to the UK and France.

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