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Ukrainian digital journey: Estonia’s role in Ukraine’s EU integration

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Estonia and Ukraine have cooperated on digital development for more than a decade. However, this collaboration has grown more intense and important as Ukraine integrates into the European Union.

Why Estonia?

In recent years, Ukraine has evolved into a global GovTech powerhouse. It showcases digital solutions that have yet to be developed in many EU countries, such as digital IDs or driver’s licenses. In line with Ukraine’s goal to make 100% of public services available online, almost 20 million Ukrainians already use the Diia application to access key documents and government services.

Estonia has been closely engaged with the Ukrainian digital success story. The main partner for Ukrainian-Estonian digital cooperation has been the e-Governance Academy (eGA). Why has this cooperation endured?

“eGA came to Ukraine first in 2012 to support the digital development of local government, and since these projects were successful, they led to more ambitious projects on national level,” explains Dr Oleg Burba, Senior Expert at e-Governance Academy

“Probably the most prominent was involvement in developing the Trembita data exchange system, which has Cybernetica’s UXP at its core and is similar to the X-Road. So, at least partly, trust in eGA has been based on the success and flawless operation of Trembita.”

“Ukrainians have appreciated the practical and sustainable orientation of eGA. Their projects have always included Ukrainian experts instead of acting as paratroopers who fly in and solve problems. It has always been like a symbiosis,” adds Oleksandr Kozlov, senior expert on eID at eGA.

“Although other countries can build internal systems, Estonia has the unique capacity to share its experience and know-how through the wide pool of experts at eGA, many of whom have been directly involved in developing the Estonian digital state.”

War created pressing needs

In digital cooperation between countries, it is easy to lose the development process in the cracks of short-term projects. Ukraine proves that this is not inevitable.

“War in Ukraine has created a need for continuous and fast development of Ukraine in the digital realm. We cannot afford projects after projects that end with useless reports. Rather, we see the development as a continuous process where projects are only ways of funding and focusing activities,” comments Dr Burba.

“Ukraine was lucky to have main state systems and registries before the full-scale war. This helped us develop new services quickly. For example, Trembita provides services for internal refugees, relocation and work services, and compensation for damaged properties.”

Developing an electronic ID with Estonia

The cornerstone of digital services is digital identification. EU4DigitalUA project played an important role in developing this in a country where, due to its large size and the urgency of war, the issuance of physical ID cards with sophisticated chips was not feasible.

“The project’s main focus was the development of the technical and legal aspects of digital identity, with a focus on aligning them with the EU requirements,” says Mr Kozlov.

“The Ukrainian electronic identity system is quite unique. It takes into account that many people may have their ID cards lost, damaged, or stolen. Ukrainians can still log in to the Diia ecosystem and create a digital ID based on the registry data. Everyone who has had an ID card or biometric passport issued previously can use their biometric data to prove they are actually the person they claim to be.”

Also, EU4DigitalUA project supported developing a digital signature for the Diia ecosystem. What makes it special is the opportunity to use it on mobile phones, which Ukrainians predominantly use to access digital services. The user interface and the logic are otherwise similar to Estonian Smart-ID. Interestingly, in Ukraine, you must also confirm the signature using biometrics. This includes a liveness check where a person is asked to do random small movements, such as opening and closing the eyes or smiling. A sad necessity for a country in war.

“Mission Impossible” – proofing of digital systems

The project DT4EU, with which Mr Kozlov and Dr Burba have been engaged since 2022, aims to further integrate the already advanced Ukrainian digital ID and signature systems with the EU. This is a crucial step on the road to becoming the next member state of the European Union.

“Although Ukraine has its internal standards, now we must demonstrate how these standards are implemented and how secure they are. This involves self-assessment and auditing by third parties,” says Mr Kozlov.

“For example, we are putting our biometric identification under pressure. We use advanced sensors, such as 58 DSLR cameras, that take hundreds of pictures and turn them into a 3D model to create a “digital person” for the attackers.

“And then we even created a high-quality 3D-printed silicone mask that mimics and has eye movement capacity. It’s stuff you would usually see in Mission Impossible movies. We are trying to make sure that our liveness tests are bulletproof.”

The project also involves auditing the entire information management system and Diia’s overall system based on EU standards.

Several further developments are also in the project. One pressing challenge is providing a functioning digital legal representation and document validation system. “This is like DigiDoc4 in Estonia—only in Ukraine. We are working on an easy user interface that can also be used on a mobile phone. These would also be EU-compatible to validate signatures and documents from all EU member states,” explains Kozlov.

Jumping on the moving train of EIDAS 2.0

As Europe advances with updates in EIDAS regulation, Ukraine needs to catch this moving train.

“On the one hand, Diia already meets all the functionality of the proposed electronic identity wallet – we have eID, signature, driving license, and document sharing capabilities in Diia ecosystem,” says Dr Burba,

“But as usual, the devil is in the details. So, we are working on harmonising the technical and legal requirements with the still-developing EIDAS framework. So, just like other EU countries, in 2 years, we will have a fully functional and compatible wallet.”

“We see that Estonia can support us in EU integration,” says Mr Kozlov. Estonia may not be the largest member state of the EU, but it has a strong voice inside expert groups and diplomatic talks regarding digital identity. Estonian experts have been part of building the Ukrainian digital state. It is good to have someone on the inside to explain and ask the right questions.”

Interested in Ukraine’s lessons learned in preparing to enter the EU’s Digital Single Market? Join the e-Governance Conference on 22 – 23 May 2024! Explore more at egovconference.ee/.

 

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