MPS to study how Canada can be more like Es­to­nia

Most dig­i­tally ad­vanced na­tion in the world

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - CANADA - STU­ART THOM­SON Na­tional Post sx­thom­[email protected]­ Twit­­ar­tx­thom­son

Some mem­bers of par­lia­ment will be study­ing an age-old ques­tion this spring: how can Canada be more like Es­to­nia?

Since the fall of the So­viet Union, the tiny Baltic coun­try has tur­bocharged its gov­ern­ment ser­vices, be­com­ing the first na­tion to al­low cit­i­zens to vote on­line and of­fer­ing a slew of ameni­ties through a sin­gle dig­i­tal por­tal. Wired Mag­a­zine even deemed the coun­try “E-sto­nia, the world’s most dig­i­tally ad­vanced so­ci­ety.”

Now, after re­leas­ing its fi­nal re­port on a data breach in­volv­ing Face­book and Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica in De­cem­ber, the House of Com­mons pri­vacy com­mit­tee will be look­ing at how Canada can fol­low the Es­to­nian model on dig­i­tal gov­ern­ment ser­vices.

Com­mit­tee chair and Con­ser­va­tive MP Bob Zim­mer said he’s hope­ful that mem­bers of the com­mit­tee will be able to travel to Es­to­nia to see it first-hand.

“I don’t know if the Es­to­nian model is pos­si­ble, but we’re def­i­nitely in­ter­ested,” said Zim­mer. “It’s got us very in­trigued, how they pre­serve the sanc­tity of per­sonal data. That’s al­ways some­thing we want to see.”

The Es­to­ni­ans have shov­elled re­sources not just into pri­vacy, but also into en­sur­ing that gov­ern­ment ser­vices are use­ful and user-friendly.

“I don’t think gov­ern­ments think of them­selves as be­ing in the cus­tomer ser­vice busi­ness, but they are,” said Lib­eral MP Nathaniel Ersk­ine-smith, who is a vice-chair on the com­mit­tee, which will be­gin study­ing the is­sue at the end of Jan­uary.

Ersk­ine-smith said gov­ern­ments at all lev­els should be look­ing for ways to im­prove dig­i­tal ser­vices, es­pe­cially with re­cent high-pro­file fail­ures like the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s Phoenix pay sys­tem.

“We ob­vi­ously don’t have a strong track record on dig­i­tal projects … but they are ex­tremely im­por­tant,” he said.

A House com­mit­tee can study an is­sue and of­fer rec­om­men­da­tions, but the gov­ern­ment is un­der no obli­ga­tion to fol­low them. Re­cent rec­om­men­da­tions from the pri­vacy com­mit­tee on bring­ing po­lit­i­cal par­ties un­der Canada’s pri­vacy laws have gone un­heeded by the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment, for ex­am­ple.

Al­though MPS are keen to study the pri­vacy and se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions, re­vamp­ing the coun­try’s dig­i­tal ser­vices would also make deal­ing with the gov­ern­ment a lit­tle less rage-in­duc­ing for Cana­di­ans. Es­to­nia has a “once-only” prin­ci­ple, which

WE OB­VI­OUSLY DON’T HAVE A STRONG TRACK RECORD ON DIG­I­TAL PROJECTS. means the gov­ern­ment can’t ask for data if it has al­ready been pro­vided to some other depart­ment. And the most pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment ser­vice in Es­to­nia is the dig­i­tal sig­na­ture, which means peo­ple don’t have to worry about phys­i­cally sign­ing gov­ern­ment forms.

The Es­to­nian sys­tem re­volves around dig­i­tal ID cards that func­tion in the cy­ber world the same way pass­ports do in the phys­i­cal world. The cards also dou­ble as en­cryp­tion de­vices to help se­cure the in­for­ma­tion.

Es­to­ni­ans can log in to a cen­tral por­tal and ac­cess gov­ern­ment ser­vices and see a record of when that in­for­ma­tion was ac­cessed by pub­lic ser­vants. This al­lows for rad­i­cal trans­parency that flows two ways: Es­to­ni­ans can, for ex­am­ple, see when­ever a po­lice of­fi­cer has run their li­cence plate or they can look up in­for­ma­tion about politi­cians, such as prop­erty records. They have the abil­ity to vote on­line, which 30 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion does, and they can ver­ify in the por­tal if their vote has been recorded.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Es­to­nia told the com­mit­tee last year that the best place for a coun­try like Canada to start would be pro­vid­ing a sim­i­lar “dig­i­tal iden­tity” to its cit­i­zens.

Ersk­ine-smith said its worth study­ing the Es­to­nian sys­tem not just for the cus­tomer ser­vice ben­e­fits for tax­pay­ers, but also to ex­am­ine the data safe­guards the coun­try has im­ple­mented. Al­though health records and tax records can be ac­cessed by cit­i­zens in the por­tal, they are walled off be­hind the scenes, mean­ing that only peo­ple who are au­tho­rized to look at the in­for­ma­tion can see it.

Much of the Es­to­nian cy­ber­se­cu­rity regime grew out of the coun­try’s re­sponse to a mas­sive cy­ber at­tack likely car­ried out by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment in 2007. At the time it was con­sid­ered the sec­ond-largest act of cy­ber war­fare in the world. In re­sponse, Es­to­nia set up a Cy­ber De­fence Unit, which is trained by the de­fence min­istry and is made up of pri­vate sec­tor ex­perts who re­main anony­mous.

Al­though MPS are look­ing ahead to a shorter ses­sion in the spring, Ersk­ine-smith said he was hope­ful the com­mit­tee could is­sue a re­port by sum­mer.


MP Bob Zim­mer, chair of the House of Com­mons pri­vacy com­mit­tee, left, lis­tens to deputy chair Nathaniel Ersk­ine-smith. Zim­mer says he’s im­pressed with how Es­to­nia pre­serves the sanc­tity of per­sonal data.

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