The small Big Data-government: doing like Estonia does?

From file cabinet to data base: The Estonian ICT policy advicer Siim Sikkut praises the new efficiency of electronic government. However, privacy matters are ever-present. By Fabian Warislohner

by Fabian Warislohner

We read the news online, transfer images digitally and shop on the web. Only our interactions with government authorities still tend to be offline processes. Other countries such as Estonia are far more advanced in this regard. It takes just five minutes to complete an online tax return there, and there’s no need to consult a tax advisor.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society and the Vodafone Institute decided to host a discussion on the subject of «Big Data For President» at the «e-Stonian» embassy.

Sikkut Discussion

Siim Sikkut, Digital Policy Adviser at Government Office of Estonia, discussing with participants (Photo: Vodafone Institute)

In Estonia, citizens who want to change their place of residence or register a business don’t have to visit a local government office or buy a stamp. The e-tax system has every Estonian citizen’s tax return data on file and their tax returns are filled out in advance for them. All they have to do is check the data is correct and click on «submit» In his keynote speech, Digital Policy Advisor at the Government Office of Estonia, Siim Sikkut, said that no interaction at all will be necessary in future.

Although the first computer system for calculating pensions went into operation in Germany in 1956, many applications are still being made on paper today. This provides a stark contrast to Estonia, where new-born babies are assigned a number by the authorities before they are even named, because the hospitals send notification of births as soon as they happen. These kinds of processes are grouped under the heading of «service orientation» and the tax paying citizens, who are the «customers» of the public authorities, are demanding their adaptation to the internet-based reality of their everyday lives.

Despite the fact that not everyone in Germany shares this neo-liberal understanding of the state, it too is planning to introduce digital file management, communication and payments in future. The «E-Government Act» that was introduced by the German government and parliament in 2013 will facilitate this.

In paperless, networked administrations there are no employees entering data into computers while citizens watch them from the other side of the desk. Instead, people will not only be able to download and print out forms at home, but also sign them online. McKinsey has calculated that this could result in annual savings of EUR 250 billion in Europe. Another advantage is that it saves citizens time.

A lot of market players are hoping for big business. Cisco’s big data expert Dirk Mahnkopf has praised the Swiss traffic management authorities for reducing «costs, fraud and errors» through analysing the population’s (mobile) data.

The Germans remain sceptical, however, and the first attempt to introduce secure communication with public authorities in 2011, the «De-Mail» system, has to be viewed as a failure due to the lack of acceptance for it. The «new ID card» that was launched in 2010 has an electronic ID and signature function, but many people simply don’t enable these functions. This might be due to the fact that the public and corporate sector simply don’t provide enough practical applications for them.

Mahnkopf

Dirk Mahnkopf (Cisco Germany): Big Data is about to become established within the public sector (Photo: Vodafone Institute)

Digitalised administration makes it easier for the authorities to share data. The Estonian government operates according to the «ask only once» principle, and citizens only have to enter their data once. In Germany, citizen data is still distributed across different filing cabinets like treasures simply waiting to be analysed for the public good.

Government authorities could collect and collate even more data, such as administrative data, communication data and health data. At best, this would make administrative processes more efficient and our lives easier: Big Data for President. According to Sikkut, the government’s analysis of data helps to reveal citizen’s requirements and needs.

Software could be used to find out what we are concerned about based on the websites we visit. Analysing health data could provide early warnings about diseases, and analysing income and tax data would bring irregularities to light sooner. All kinds of forecasts could be created. The police might even use algorithms to arrive at crime scenes before crimes actually happen.

There are also potential downsides to big data that have to be considered. Government-funded data collection and analysis would subject individual citizens to even more scrutiny. Are our optimisation efforts compromising privacy much to the delight of the secret services?

Even when personal data is technically anonymised, the sheer volume of data could make it possible to retroactively link it to that person. The right to informational self-determination also exists in respect of data stored by public authorities, and they have to have an individual’s explicit consent for each time data is processed. It’s also important to ensure that people who aren’t online are not disadvantaged.

Data is often viewed as a kind of commodity, as the «new oil». That view is too narrow, though, because personal data is a human being’s digital self, and according to the German Constitution, human dignity is inviolable. There’s no doubt that companies would love to have the funds to build a digital administration. But caution is advised: all that data might be used against us one day.

There have been an increasing number of attacks on IT systems in recent years. Estonia doesn’t share health data with third parties and its citizens can prevent the disclosure of certain information in their health profiles, but only until the next data leak. Having too many security functions generally has a detrimental effect on usability. A completely networked public administration increases the likelihood of attacks, data could potentially be manipulated, or tapped into by criminals or the secret services, and there are many unknowns.

The same concerns exist with regard to electronic elections, which are an attractive option for both citizens living abroad and citizens living at home. An investigation into the Estonian e-voting system revealed that it has significant deficiencies and the voting software doesn’t meet the necessary security standards. Elections also have to be open to scrutiny, which isn’t really possible with computer systems. They can be manipulated and they aren’t transparent.

Sikkut and Hofmann

Siim Sikkut and Jeanette Hofmann (m., Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society): The Estonian way as a model for other states? (Foto: Vodafone Institut)

One aspect of digitalisation that is associated with fewer risks is that it opens up new methods of participation. It allows citizens to comment online very early on in legislative processes. Online consultations such as the one for Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin and online discussions give citizens the opportunity to make their opinions and ideas heard.

There are also great hopes for «open (government) data». It would reverse the usual official silence of governments and administrations, which would make data freely available so that interested parties can scrutinise them (e.g. data on government contracts or statistics) or write applications for them. Germany is still lagging behind Georgia on the open data front – though this is set to change with the E-Government Act.

We must make sure that data protection is not forgotten because transparency is not an end in itself. It should guarantee equal treatment for all and provide protection against corruption and manipulation rather than creating new power imbalances.

In this respect the legal requirements for the digitalisation of the state in Germany are clear: to increase efficiency and reduce bureaucracy while giving data protection and privacy constitutional priority.

Fabian Warislohner is working for netzpolitik.org.

This point of view was first published for Internet Policy Review and on the homepage of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society.

The Vodafone Institute is a platform for cross-sector dialogue. The viewpoints of our guests and external authors do not necessarely represent the official position of Vodafone Group.

This event is part of the series “Big Data – big power shifts?”, which the Vodafone Institute conducts in cooperation with the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. The kick-off event “Making Sense of Big Data” amongst others welcomed London sociologist Mike Savage. The spin-off “Big Data for Health. Who benefits?” saw cancerologist Christof von Kalle elaborating on new ways for medical treatment.

  • For more information on the topic see the report “Moving into the e-government era” (PDF)