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22 March 2016

The small big-data-government: do like Estonia does?

We read the news, send photos and shop online. Only our interactions with state authorities still largely take place offline. In certain countries, such as Estonia, there has been more progress in this regard: there, it takes just five minutes to do your taxes online, without any tax advisors. No wonder that the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) had invited to the Embassy of “e-Stonia” to discuss the topic of “Big Data For President”. The event was a keynote dialogue for the series Big data: big power shifts?, that the HIIG conducts in cooperation with the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications.

The digitalisation of administration

Changing address or registering a business: in Estonia, you don’t need to walk to an office or get a stamp. Thanks to digital administration, all the data needed for a person’s tax return is already on file; citizens just need to cast a glance at the result and click on “submit”. In the future, no interaction should be necessary at all, said Siim Sikkut, Digital Policy Adviser at Government Office of Estonia, in his keynote speech.

Although the first German computer system for calculating pensions began operating in 1956, to this day many applications must still be submitted on paper. In Estonia, by contrast, newborn babies get a number from the authorities before they are even given a name, as the hospital immediately reports their birth to the state. Processes like this are considered part of “service orientation” – as “customers”, taxpaying citizens demand that public authorities adapt to the internet-based reality of everyday life. Although not everyone will share this neo-liberal understanding of the state, in Germany it is intended that file management, communication and payment will also be done digitally in the future. To achieve this, the German parliament introduced the “E-Government Act” in 2013.

Industry hopes for profits

In a paperless, networked administration, it is not the clerk entering the data into the computer while the citizen watches from the other side of the desk. People will not just be able to download forms and print them out from home, but also – comfortably – sign them online, instantaneously. McKinsey has calculated that this could allow Europe to save 250 billion euros each year. The time savings for citizens are another advantage.

Industry is hoping for big business: Cisco’s big data expert Dirk Mahnkopf, for example, commends the Swiss transport planning system, which reduced “costs, fraud and error” by analysing people’s (mobile) data. The German public remains skeptical: the first attempt to provide secure communication with the authorities – the “De-Mail” system agreed on in 2011 – can be considered a failure due to its lack of acceptance. The “new ID card” presented in 2010 does contain an electronic identity and signature function, but many people do not enable these functions in the first place. This may also be because public agencies and companies do not offer enough useful applications for this to make sense.

(Even) more data for the state

Digitalised administration can allow for an easier exchange of data between authorities. Citizens only have to enter their data once – the Estonian administration operates on an “ask only once” principle. In Germany, the data is still scattered in different filing cabinets – treasures, just waiting to be analysed for the good of the population?

The state could collect and bring together more data: administrative data, communications data, health data. At best, this would make our administration more efficient and our lives more convenient: Big Data for President. According to Sikkut, data analysis by the state brings citizens’ needs and wishes to the fore. Software could calculate what we care about based on the websites we visit. Analysing health data would provide early warnings about diseases; irregularities in income and taxes would be noticed earlier on. Forecasts of all kinds could be created. Algorithms would allow the police to be at the scene of a crime before it even happens.

What are the dangers?

But the flip-side of big data has to be considered: government-funded data collection and analysis would subject individuals to even more scrutiny. The secret services would certainly rejoice. But, in our urge to optimise, do we run the risk of endangering privacy. Even if data is technically anonymised, it may be retroactively possible to link it to an individual due to the amount of data. For data in the public sector, there is also a right to informational self-determination: at each point when data is processed, explicit consent must be given. In addition, people who are not online should not be disadvantaged.

Data is often looked on as a kind of commodity, as the “new oil”. But such considerations fall short: data constitutes the digital image of the person, whose dignity is inviolable according to the German Basic Law. Without a question, companies would be delighted to get the funds to build a digital administration. But we should be cautious: all this data could be used against us one day.

Attacks on IT systems are increasing worldwide. Estonia does not share health data with third parties, and citizens have the right to prevent the disclosure of certain items in their health profile – but this only applies until the next data leak. Having too many safety functions usually comes at the expense of usability. A fully networked administration increases opportunities for attacks. Data could be manipulated or taken by criminals and intelligence services; there are many unknowns.

This also applies to electronic elections, which seem to not just be attractive for citizens living abroad: a review of the Estonian electronic voting system found significant deficiencies, and from a safety point of view, the election software is unusable. In addition, elections must be open to scrutiny. Computer systems are only safe to a certain extent: they are not just manipulable, but also rather opaque.

An outlook

One aspect of digitalisation that is associated with lower risks is new methods of participation: citizens can comment on legislative processes online early on. Online consultations, such as those for the Tempelhofer Feld park in Berlin or online discourses give the public’s opinions and ideas more of an airing.

There are also great hopes for “Open (Government) Data”: instead of maintaining official silence, governments and administrations would make data freely available. Interested parties could, for example, critically question data about government contracts or statistics or suggest applications for it. As far as the free disclosure of government data is concerned, Germany is still behind Georgia – but that is set to change with the E-Government Act, too. In this context, data protection should not be forgotten. Because transparency is not an end in itself: It should ensure equal treatment for all and provide protection against corruption and manipulation, not create new power imbalances.

In this respect, the legal requirements for the digitalisation of the state in Germany are clear: creating efficiency and diminishing bureaucracy are desirable, but data protection and privacy have constitutional priority.

This article was published first in the Internet Policy Review.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Fabian Warislohner

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