February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic broke out, the Estonian Chamber of Notaries launched the e-notary service as a pilot project that enables the remote authentication of notarial acts to be carried out at Estonian embassies – The first state service of its kind in Europe.
Using the e-Notary – simples!
This meant that e-residents and Estonians living overseas no longer had to Visit Estonia each time they needed the services of the local notaries. Although, before this time, 99% of Estonian public services had been digitised for years, the complexities, sensitivity, and risks associated with notarial acts excluded them from this narrative. Notarial services just had to be done in person at local notary offices.
Adaptability in the face of the pandemic
The e-notary service pilot came at a crucial time, but the remote verification could initially only be done at the Estonian embassies in Helsinki, London, Brussels, Stockholm, and Riga. But within months of being launched, it developed into a fully-fledged platform that could be accessed right from the comfort of one’s home. During the first quarter of this year, roughly 91% of all notarial acts by e-residents were carried out via the e-notary service.
“The project was initially planned at a smaller scale. The remote authentication was supposed to be done one-on-one and only by a visit to Estonian embassies. At the time, it couldn’t be done from just anywhere. It had to be at the Estonian embassy closest to you, and our initial pilot had five embassies under its coverage. But towards the end of the pilot phase, we realised that visiting embassies was equally constricting for the clientele. At this point, we had to find a way to make the remote service available beyond embassies,” Robin Lõo, head of Notaries Information System Division of the Centre of Registers and Information Systems, comments.
Gone fully remote
Prior to launching the e-notary system, physical presence at a local notary’s office was required to trade or transfer company shares, buy or sell real estate, attest credentials, or carry out other notarial acts. This made it inconvenient for e-residents and Estonians living abroad to manage their affairs and carry out business transactions from overseas. But with the e-notary service now rolled out to its total capacity, you can carry out all but one type of transaction from anywhere you are in the world.
Katrin Sepp, notary candidate and legal advisor of the Estonian Chamber of Notaries.
“There are no limits to the type of notarial services that can be done remotely. You can do everything remotely except marriage or divorce. For that, you just have to see the notary face-to-face in the same room. But anything else, the clients can just be at their home or wherever else they are and do all that needs to be done,” says Katrin Sepp, notary candidate and legal advisor of the Estonian Chamber of Notaries.
Internal e-notary system already in use long before
Like other arms of e-Estonia, the Estonian Chamber of Notaries, was of course, not left out by the waves of digitalisation. Long before the e-notary service was ever to be made accessible to the public, an internal e-service was already being used by the notaries.
The e-Notary self-service platform.
“The possibility of not needing to see notaries face-to-face or not going to their office just became an option with remote authentication. But before that, we already had a standard e-notary system that was being used internally by the notaries and notary offices to prepare contracts, schedule calendars, sign documents, create document templates, access registers, send out documents and data to the registries, issue apostilles, etc. It was just that the existing e-notary service was not available for the public’s use,” Katrin discloses.
Significant improvements to the platform
The e-notary service has improved in diverse ways since the initial pilot was first launched. This is partially due to the impact of the pandemic and the way it has disrupted technological innovations. “Since we went live, the service, particularly from the customer end, has improved in several ways. Three years ago, we didn’t know what we wanted from the video conference, but since COVID-19 hit, we have gotten to see how the likes of Zoom and Skype have improved, and we have incorporated similar improvements into our system. Initially, we wanted just to see each other (the notaries and the clients).
But then, we added a chatbox, zooming/pausing/recording features, and other helpful functionalities.” Robin points out. “Right now, we get feedback from the users, listen to the feedback and discuss that internally. It is a public service, so usability and security are important to us. And of course, our reputation needs to be kept intact as well. This is why we always strive to improve the service,” Katrin adds.
“The biggest upgrade to the e-notary system went live at the beginning of September this year. This upgrade gives room for a hybrid notarial transaction, whereby some of the clients are on seat in-person with the notary while others are connected remotely. Before now, you could only carry out notarial acts either online or offline. Every member of a group or team had to be at the notary office in person with the others or online with the others. Now you can have a big hybrid transaction,” Robin says, smiling.
Data privacy and protection assured
Data privacy and protection remains a recurrent issue and burning topic within the tech sphere, as we’ve seen with Meta (ex. Facebook), the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and more. With the sensitivity of the data and information exchanged between notaries and their clients, data security and privacy were group members or team members significant for the Chamber of Notaries.
A lot of public services are working in the background of notarial acts.
“Since the notarial contracts are confidential, security is a real big issue. Nobody should see or hear what the notaries and clients are talking about. This is why we developed our platform and server. We aren’t using third-party services, so all communication, including video and audio transmission, is going through our server,” Robin explains. “The digital ID and signing system is also a platform we did not develop ourselves. But since this belongs to the state, all state agencies can make use of it,” Katrin adds.
“We are minimising the occurrence of potential breaches by hosting our own system and using our own video conference platform. We used an open-source code that Andmevara modified for us, but the server is hosted on the Ministry of Justice’s server. So, to use the e-notary service, every client connects to the server in the Ministry of Justice – no other connection is made. As of yet, we don’t know of vulnerabilities related to the e-service. And since we are not relying on third-party platforms, we would continue our remote notarial authentications even when Zoom, Skype, Facebook, or some other platform is down,” Robin muses.
Collaboration with Veriff and Andmevara
Andmevara was the partner tasked with building the system and they did build the initial version. Still, the Centre of Registers and Information Systems has been in charge of operating, managing, and improving the system on behalf of the Chamber of Notaries since it went live. Veriff’s biometric facial recognition system is also integrated with the e-notary system.
This identification system employs Veriff’s biometric facial recognition system, which uses algorithms to ensure that the person in front of the screen matches the one pictured on their ID. “Users need the service to be simple, intuitive, and fast, and we have been able to achieve that. During the last year, we’ve improved our verification flow to be easily followed, cutting down the average verification time from 90 seconds to 6 seconds,” comments Miina Vilo, an account manager at Veriff.
“Veriff wasn’t initially included as part of the project. The idea to include their face recognition solution came up later towards the end of the project. Of course, this was the case being that our initial plan was to have the consular/embassy workers invite the clients for physical checks and identity verification. When the initiative to fully go remote came up, the idea of including Veriff as part of the solution was brought up. And indeed, Veriff adds an extra layer of security to our e-service because it uses algorithms to verify that the person in front of the screen matches the on the ID,” Robin explains. To make use of the e-notary service, all you need is your Estonian ID card, Smart-ID, or mobile-ID. It’s that simple!
Replication in other public departments
Katrin, from the Estonian Chamber of Notaries, says that the massive success of the e-notary service has made other public departments, including the tax office, interested in a similar solution. And likewise, other notaries in Europe have followed their lead to create a similar solution both for internal and external use.
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co-author and postgraduate student