It’s been 22 years since the first 174 Estonian ID cards were handed to their owners. Estonia has since then grown into a digital powerhouse. Raul Kaidro, the CEO of RaulWalter, was one of the key players in Estonia’s digital transformation trajectory. He remains active in developing e-Estonia while helping other countries achieve a similar digital infrastructure.
A digital society is made up of layers of bricks, and one of its foundational bricks is the eID. Without it, e-Estonia wouldn’t exist. “By the concept, this is the foundational identity document. So, on top of it, you can build the Mobile ID and the Smart ID. You build this kind of chain of trust based on one particular document issued by the State and then extend that trust to other devices and tokens,” Raul Kaidro from RaulWalter explains.
Not surprisingly, Estonia is considered one of the countries in the world with the most successful national ID card systems in terms of card distribution and active use. As of February 2024, approximately 1.4 million ID cards are being used. Raul was part of the team that brought about the active usage of the eID.
Making the eID card’s active use happen
“It was the very early days of the smart card-based solution. I joined the team to figure out how to make people actually use the eID. And then I ended up as a Manager of Certification Services for SK ID Solutions,” says Raul. He was part of the SK ID Solutions team that developed the Mobile ID before he went on his own. Interestingly, SK ID Solutions, also the Smart ID developer and the provider of certificates for the Estonian ID, ended up becoming a client of his company, RaulWalter.
However, Raul notes that having the technologies for a digital society is not enough, as people have to actually use digital services for it to be considered a digital society. Meanwhile, as countries like Germany have seen, ensuring this can be herculean. So how did Estonia do it?
The role of the banking sector
“In the very beginning, the eID as a form of plastic card was only good for scratching ice off the windshield of a car. I mean, nobody used it electronically,” Raul admits. To change this, they first made sure to improve the user experience, and next came the banking sector’s input.
“We negotiated with the banks and created initiatives that motivate users to use the eID instead of old passcode-based authentication solutions. Therefore, the private sector and especially the banks were the ones who actually drove the whole user experience,” he highlights.
X-Road as the cornerstone
While the eID is one of the foundational bricks of digital Estonia, the cornerstone is the interoperability platform, also known as X-Road, developed in 2001. The interoperability platform, which is the national data exchange system, saves Estonia 2066 years of working time annually.
According to Raul, the interoperability platform is the base of digital Estonia because it enables the connections between the different governmental institutions and provides for the once-only principle. The once-only principle means that the government is not supposed to ask for information that it already has. Continuing, he explained that once X-Road was launched, it became crucial for the user (the people) to properly authenticate to the system.
“The authentication became crucial for both sides. From the service provider side, i.e. the State and the end users’ side. They both had to be authenticated properly. And for that, the eID came into play. That’s for both authentication and digital signing,” he says. “So I believe these crucial components define Estonia when you think about digitalisation,” he adds.
Frameworks as part of the puzzle
Raul points out that it is easy to think digital solutions can be exported and replicated. And perhaps they can, but technologies are not the determinants of digitalisation. Instead, it’s more of the parts that constitute the whole, of which technology is a tiny fraction.
“So let’s say you take any other country in the world and introduce either the eID or X-Road; nothing will change. Technology itself is actually easy. You can get it from any shop or any service provider when it comes down to software or hardware solutions. But what matters the most is the organisational and legal frameworks supporting it,” he says.
“For instance, it’s not about the eID but the principle that everybody must accept and prefer a digital signature, a digitally signed document in electronic communication for that matter,” he adds. And those legal and organisational frameworks Estonia was able to put in place.
The place of trust in the system
Raul notes that trust is another crucial component in making a digital society. Estonia used a two-in-one concept to allay possible personal data and privacy concerns. The personal data protection act, which made the user, and not the government, the owner of their data, was passed, and the Data Protection Inspectorate was established as the defender of the related constitutional rights.
Data trackers were then developed for full transparency. “We introduced these kinds of data trackers so you can see which or who has accessed your data and then again provide transparency and therefore create trust,” he reveals. Of course, Estonia is known for its transparency even in critical situations that could potentially undermine the trust in the State and the e-services.
Digital skills enhancement initiatives
Since it’s not enough to have advanced technologies if people don’t know how to use them, Estonia set about arming people with the basic digital skills needed to navigate e-Estonia. “In the early 2000s, we ran different initiatives to train people on using electronic services such as the eID and digital signature. This kind of education or skill set is crucial when you think about digitalisation,” Raul acknowledges.
Today, both the old and young in Estonia use digital services. The beauty of it is that the young generation does not even need this basic digital skills training since they are growing up using these services. As for the aged, they love the convenience of digital services and are using them. 99% of income tax declarations, which includes that of the elderly, are submitted online in Estonia. And the percentage of the elderly that vote online during elections continues to grow.
680,000 cards fixed remotely
It is true that nothing is 100% perfect, even in an ultramodern digital society. That’s why the answer lies in proactiveness in dealing with crises and potential ones. For example, on 30 August 2017, Estonia was alerted about a security vulnerability in the chips used in the Estonian ID card, with about 800,000 cards affected. Given how crucial the eID is to accessing digital services and the extent of damage that exploitation of the vulnerability could do, it was a race against time to put out the flames.
RaulWalter was able to come to the rescue. “It is interesting that there were something like 750,000 cards affected, and we managed to remotely fix 680,000 of them without actually replacing the physical card. That was really awesome,” he says, smiling. The RIA has since released a document on the eID flaw and lessons learned from handling it in preparation for the next vulnerability.
The document revealed that Estonia was not the only country affected by this security vulnerability issue. Still, unlike Estonia, others like Slovakia and Spain had to revoke and replace most, if not all, of the cards. For instance, Spain had to revoke and physically replace 17 million affected ID cards.
RaulWalter, a significant player in the digital identity market
A digital identity solutions company, RaulWalter has made several references for itself, providing numerous services to state agencies and private companies both at home and abroad. Its public sector clientele includes the Office of the Citizen and Migration Office of the Republic of Latvia, the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board, and the Estonian Information Systems Authority. Among other commitments, RaulWalter has been the state’s partner in maintaining the Estonian eID software bundle, which includes the DigiDoc, since 2012.
In its recently released 2022 market analysis report on the digital identity solutions market, ReportLinker named RaulWalter one of the major players. And the market itself is expected to rise to $70.7 billion worth by 2027, with RaulWalter as a contributor. Currently, the company is on its way to digitising the Western Balkans, and the Caribbean might be next. “We are trying to digitalise the whole Western Balkans, and after that, it would be great to do the same with Trinidad and Tobago. At the moment, we are trying to explain to them the basic concepts and principles underneath the digitisation process,” he reveals.
In conclusion, Raul notes that his arrogant trait was his claim that he had figured out the formula for digitising almost any country in the world. “I would like to find that country within this decade to digitise completely. That is my ultimate goal,” he highlights.