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Estonia, the eID pioneer, reacts to the European digital wallet plans

The European Commission unveiled a proposal for a reliable and secure digital identity for all Europeans at the beginning of summer. Unlike in many other countries, Estonians have had state-issued digital identities since 2002. Thanks to this, Estonia is years ahead of countries still trying to work out how to authenticate people without physical contact. 

The Commission proposes to offer citizens and companies in the Member States, among other things, so-called digital wallets, with which national digital identity can be linked to other personal documents, e.g., driving license, diplomas, bank account.

Such digital wallets would allow paper documents (such as driving licenses) to be digitised across Europe and conveniently carried and presented across borders. According to the proposal, such digital wallets will be built based on digital identities issued by the member states, i.e., the Estonian ID card and other eID solutions. These solutions will not disappear, but all countries will have an obligation to provide their people with a reliable digital identity.

Naturally, we asked our high officials what they think of the Commission’s plans.

 Digitalisation is not an end in itself

According to Andres Sutt, the Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology, Europe needs a higher level of ambition in digitalisation to meet the expectations of European citizens and the needs of companies. “Digitalisation is not an end in itself, but a creation of practical solutions and added value that benefits our businesses and citizens,” said Sutt.

 The Estonian IT minister Andres Sutt rocking the e-Estonia hoodie. 

The Minister added that Estonia supports the creation of the European digital compass, which sets milestones and indicators to assess progress towards the goals of the European Digital Decade. The Digital Decade has four main directions proposed by the European Commission:

  • digital skills and ICT specialists
  • secure and reliable digital infrastructure
  • digital transformation of business
  • digitalisation of public services

Digital decade targets include, among others, 100% online provision of key public services and 80% uptake of digital ID solutions. “An Estonian citizen should have access with their ID card to the same e-services that a Belgian citizen receives today, and vice versa. The eID solutions and services created by the Member States must be available across borders,” said Sutt.

An app to take care of the bureaucracy

According to the stories circulating in the media, Europe will soon get an app that will allow having all your necessary documents in one place. Sten Tikerpe, IT-Law & Policy Team Lead @ Government CIO Office, comments: “Yes, the proposal to update the eIDAS regulation, which regulates e-identification and trust services in the European Union, provides for the creation of so-called “identity wallets” which are intended to be in the form of mobile applications.”

Sten Tikerpe standing near a stone wall

Sten Tikerpe, IT-Law & Policy Team Lead @ Government CIO Office. Photo credit: Ingrid Lauringson. 

A digital purse, digital identity, digital wallet, digital pocket. These are the names that the European Commission uses for their new application to store the electronic identity of EU citizens. In the official Estonian translation, it is called “digiidentiteeditasku” which can also be translated as “digital identity pocket” in English. “However, in discussions between experts, the term wallet still has a strong footing,” Tikerpe mentions and adds: “That aside – the content is more important than the name here.”

Getting the tech giants on board

The Commission wants to make it possible for citizens to identify themselves and share electronic documents in the EU at the touch of a button. The Commission also intends to demand the recognition of the digital wallet from large corporations. For example, if Facebook wants you to confirm your age, the digital wallet should be enough to prove it. This would give citizens a clearer picture of what data they share with the so-called big tech. Are these merely dreams, or can such agreements be reached with the tech giants?

Sten Tikerpe chimes in: “This is undoubtedly an ambitious goal, but then again, goals must be ambitious. What is certain is that most of the use cases for digital IDs are from the private sector, which the eIDAS regulation has not covered so far. So there is a whole world of cross-border services that may open to all Europeans, provided that the necessary technical standards and tools for interoperability are also successfully brought to life. Drafting legislation is only one side of the coin here.”

Rival to the ApplePay 

​​As the framework for the system is still being developed, it is not clear strictly how digital identity will work and what functions it will ultimately offer. In theory, the application could be a direct rival to the ApplePay application and/or other similar payment apps. However, it is not known whether and in what form such a function will eventually reach consumers.

According to Tikerpe, the concept is still raw at the moment. “However, I have never perceived it as a competitor to ApplePay or any other similar services. ApplePay is a payment service; the digital identity wallet would be an e-identification service. Therefore, if anything, these two types of services have the potential to complement each other.”

Sten Tikerpe also stresses an interesting fact: “While eIDAS has to date focused merely on online identification, it is proposed to extend it to the world of physical services. With the digital wallet, a person could prove the existence of specific credentials in the physical world – for example, proving to a service provider that a person is old enough to buy a product or to the police officer that he has a valid driver’s license.”

The national eID-s will remain intact

The European Commission has confirmed that the eID-s and similar systems in the member-states will remain intact and that the EU’s digital wallet will simply complement them. However, national systems will become the basis for this digital wallet. Each country will develop a separate digital wallet app for its citizens according to the current plan. Estonia has yet not revealed anything about developing such an app.

Sten Tikerpe says Estonia is currently drafting national positions to the proposal published by the Commission. “The current text is still a proposal, published at the beginning of June, and it is too soon to make any development-related decisions – the standards and requirements are still abstract and to be formed in the coming discussions between the Commission and the Member States.”

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