Estonia may be a tiny country, but its tech companies have been punching above their weight for years. Be it B.EST Solutions that have successfully implemented mID in Azerbaijan, Proud Engineers helping build India’s digital society, or SK ID Solutions that has issued ca 4 million authentication tokens across Baltic states.
B.EST Solutions has been recognised by the United Nations, Google and Financial Times, EU, OECD, U.S State Department, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their customers include multinationals, major banks, mobile network operators, and insurance companies, along with international organisations and a wide variety of other clients.
What Estonia does best
The company was founded by an ambitious Estonian woman, Jana Krimpe, chosen among the world TOP100 Influencers in Identity in 2018. It was personal life that led Jana to Azerbaijan, and she couldn’t just sit still. “I thought about what I could do best and concluded that I would try to implement something Estonia does best, and that is, of course, IT. So, in 2010 we became the first X-Road – centrally managed distributed Data Exchange Layer between information systems, and the backbone of e-Estonia – exporters with Cybernetica and Aktors.” It provided a great learning curve for the companies, and later Cybernetica packaged it as a solution to be implemented in other countries.
However, Jana Krimpe and her team quickly realised that times had changed, and the ID-card-based solution, so smoothly at work in Estonia, is not as likely to take off elsewhere. They pivoted quickly and decided to go with mobile-ID instead. “We got the whole m-ID infrastructure, including the creation of the trusted service provision, up and running in six months. This was unprecedented,” Jana Krimpe says. “And a year later, in 2014, all three mobile operators in Azerbaijan started issuing SIMs with mID. It was the third country in the world, which had implemented mID after Finland and Estonia.”
eID is not a standalone thing
With every project, B.EST Solutions’ know-how has deepened, and Jana Krimpe is not looking to implement quick solutions or give empty promises about setting up mobile-ID from scratch. “For any country, the average time for this type of service to start taking off is 5-6 years. I have not seen it happen quicker anywhere. The eID or mID is not a standalone thing; e-services need to be integrated, a lot of networking and communication to the public is done for this to work. We always tell our local partners that they need to be patient. Because there will always come the point where the service providers will come to them, not the other way around.”
Rooting out the shadow economy
For example, Azerbaijan took a gamble and mandated their VAT companies to start declaring taxes electronically. At first, there was some backlash, but later – gratitude due to decreased paperwork and bureaucracy. The second innovative service asked for all employment contracts to be in an only electronic format from day X. The number of official employment contracts in the country increased by 40%. “All the people behind this percentage got access to social security, health insurance, financial loans. There were thousands more mID users, and today all these users alone help the country save up to 2% of GDP,” Jana Krimpe says.
Today, over 1000 e-services are offered to be used with the mID in Azerbaijan. Currently, B.EST has projects underway in Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Kenya, planning to expand to other Central Asian countries and developing regions more generally.
PPP is the key to success
“There are many potential countries with whom we can work, but there are also basic requirements that need to be in place before we can start,” Krimpe emphasises. They always send a lengthy questionnaire to interested parties to evaluate the seriousness and the potential. “There has to be the political will to do it. And basic databases plus laws in place that guarantee the implementation of digital services. If these are lacking, we ask them to contact us after ticking all the necessary boxes. Our strength is flexibility; we don’t implement rigid or fixed solutions. Every country is unique and needs a unique approach. But one thing is certain – successful eID projects happen in public-private partnerships so that all stakeholders can experience how they can benefit from eID.”
AI-based cross-border electronic identity
The Estonian state’s leading partner in providing certification services for national identity documents (ID-card, Mobile-ID, Digi-ID, residence permit card, and e-residents Digi-ID) is SK ID Solutions (SK).
SK was founded in 2001 by two major banks and telecommunications companies to develop certificates and services for Estonian ID-cards and digital signing. Today SK is still owned by these companies’ successors – Scandinavian banks Swedbank and SEB, and telecommunications provider Telia.
With offices in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, SK services more than 1000 organizations, including financial, healthcare, energy, education, and various other private and public sector e-services. SK has over 3.8 million active authentication tokens across Baltic states, meaning every second person in the Baltics has it.
The successful development of Smart-ID earned SK the title of Innovator of the Year at the “Entrepreneurship Competition 2019” organized by Enterprise Estonia and the Estonian Employers’ Confederation.
Alternative to PIN generators – strong customer authentication (SCA)
Their most recent and most popular eID product is Smart-ID – a cross-border mobile app-based solution. It is an internationally recognized secure and convenient solution for authentication in e-services and issuing electronic signatures accepted all over the European Union.
“Smart-ID is a convenient alternative for outdated authentication solutions like bank PIN cards or PIN generators,” says Georg Nikolajevski, SK ID’s Business Development Executive. “Smart-ID is easy to use and free of charge for the end-users. Smart-ID can be used as a single-sign-on solution for different e-services across business sectors and countries. In the future, Smart-ID could be the single authentication solution for all user needs. It allows cross-border solutions to be provided. It can be used to share the burden of customer identification. For example, banks can cover customers in several countries while using this solution. Smart-ID meets the PSD2 SCA requirements and the GDPR. Now empowered with AI-based remote identity verification, Smart-ID can be used in many other EU countries.”
Way through pandemic
A couple of weeks before the global pandemic, SK introduced new biometry and AI-based onboarding method for Smart-ID. Before introducing biometric registration, Smart-ID could only be updated via physical identification at a bank branch or via Mobile-ID or ID-card. During the state of emergency in the spring, when people’s movements were restricted, Smart-ID’s new identification method was the only way for many to conduct necessary activities.
In the next five years, SK aims to make Smart-ID available in all European countries to all EU residents.
A lifestyle business…helping build Digital Societies
Proud Engineers stands out in our eID providers trio the most for their laissez-faire approach. “We are more of a lifestyle business,” says the company’s founder Taavi Kotka, serial-entrepreneur, who also served as Estonia’s former Chief Information Officer, and adds, “If the challenge is interesting enough, we will take it.”
Kotka claims 90% of their portfolio are clients who have found them. “Countries are in a hurry to build a modern digital society,” he explains.
Historically the company has helped many governments and large enterprises, and currently, their primary focus is in India. Together with the largest telecom company Jio, they have created a Jio Research Center with a vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society.
The CIO of Estonia
Kotka remains unfazed. “All of us at Proud Engineers have extensive experience in software development, policymaking, and lawmaking, myself also in the startup world. Experience matters.” And, of course, serving as a country’s CIO helps, too, I suggest.
Kotka agrees but stresses. “In general, we help our clients to understand what it takes from a policy and technology perspective to create a digital society and how to motivate citizens to follow. How to get private sector play along and even lead the whole transformation process.”
“Proud Engineers is the main contractor type of company; we use partners everywhere. Our goal is to put the rails in place and let others ride them,” concludes Kotka.
All three companies will go more in-depth with their solutions and services offered during our next Digital Discussion on electronic identity on March 10th, at 11 AM (+2GMT). Please secure your spot at the high-level, registration-only event by clicking here.
communications manager at the e-estonia briefing centre