Wednesday, 2 December

Recently, the president signed a decree on the creation of a single electronic services portal. Together with experts, we tell whether there is a need for such changes, whether the state and the Ukrainians themselves are ready and what dangers can be expected for the “electronic country”.

Do we need it? What are the advantages/disadvantages of such changes?

Serhii Rachynsky, an expert of Pylyp Orlyk Institute of Democracy is convinced that there is a real need to simplify the processes of communication between the population and public institutions. However, the specialist emphasizes: first of all, it is necessary to bring order to the databases that already exist in various departments and to combine them.

“Now people are forced to act as intermediaries between departments, passing information from one to another, when in fact it is often already there. Secondly, it is necessary to radically reduce the list of what the state can require from people and the number of different permits and forms. Only after this reduction, it is possible to transfer the rest into the electronic form. Thirdly, communication with the state should not take place on the Internet, but through a separate network of terminals such as ATMs. For many Ukrainians, Internet use is still a challenge, especially for the elderly.

The use of terminals, which should be in many places, should be as simple and intuitive as possible. The Internet portal is too complex and unnecessary, and its use depends on the availability of Internet access, possible problems with the provider, user’s computer malfunctions etc.”

Dmytro Snopchenko, a specialist in information security, states that the need for the creation of an electronic services portal does exist because it is for the benefit of the citizens and government.

“For a person it is, first of all, the accessibility of services, saving time and money to obtain information and some pre-services that do not require personal presence. This refers to the appointment with the notary, automatic creation of document templates, data check etc.”

However, according to the expert, it is impossible to perform “legally significant” operations online due to the presence of two problems.

“The first is user authentication. Today, there is no mass and affordable way to authenticate users in an electronic system. Yes, there is authentication via SMS or electronic digital signature (EDS), but SMS is not suitable for legally significant operations, because SIM cards are still sold freely, and the messages are easy to intercept. EDS is a reliable way, but one needs to “go somewhere and do something” to get it in our AKCC, and our lazy users do not really want to do it.

The second reason is the credulity of the system, it must be seriously tested, first of all, by time, so that the users begin to trust it.”

Outside of that, the expert on information security lists a number of advantages of the introduction of an electronic services portal for the state.

“The first is unloading various organs and people in their offices, from the conditional “I just need to ask” to those who come several times to redo certain documents. It will be enough for a person to come once and sign ready and checked documents at a clearly established time.

The second is centralized statistics. Not only on the services provided but also on-demand or load on certain bodies. Of course, now individual agencies submit all this, but this information needs to be processed somehow.

The third is all sorts of political bonuses such as increasing the rating among our citizens and among the world community.”

An associate professor of Vadym Hetman Kyiv National Economic University Pavlo Satsky told about the problems with the identification of a person online.

“The existing technical means do not allow 100% identification of the person it is in contact within a virtual form, and even more so its motivation to perform actions in the virtual space. Therefore, when trying to introduce electronic voting, there is a risk of mass bribery of voters at their places of residence, they might be controlled by those who bribe for the act of voting, while the turnout at the polling station creates quite powerful barriers to control the expression of the will of voters.

Simply put, when a voter votes at home from a smartphone or tablet, those who bribe him can freely see how this voter voted. In a booth at the polling station, the voter has a chance to vote as he wants, even if he takes money for his vote. Other transactions where there is a need for identity identification are also at risk of external interference due to the impossibility of 100% correct identity identification. For example, it is impossible to identify a person during a virtual exam – whether a person or someone else does it, or someone hints and a person just enters the result. This problem should be worked on and its solution will be a real new word in the technological progress of mankind.”

Maryna Bahrova, a member of the board of the International Union “Institute of National Policy”, notes that the issue of creating a single portal is long overdue, and the key advantages of the idea are primarily in the convenience of using public services.

“All services provided by the state, from obtaining a passport of a citizen to the reorganization of a legal entity, can be ordered through a single portal. Citizens will not need to puzzle over where and in what departments they need to run to get certain documents, which portals they need to use for all this.

However, I would like to note that the presence of a single portal does not always lead to the improvement of the efficiency of public authorities and local self-government.”

To what extent is all this real, and are state agencies ready for changes?

Serhii Poida, a candidate of pedagogical sciences, a senior lecturer of the department of management and administration of CHEI Vinnytsia Academy of Continuous Education, stresses that this legislative solution is quite realistic.

“Officials understand this very well and resist the introduction of such a system. Now there are no people in the government who do not know how to work with a computer or a phone and do not use the Internet. What are the causes, in addition to corruption schemes, to not implement a state electronic portal?”

Oleksii Zakharov, a managing partner of the Zakharov’s Law Firm, in turn, believes otherwise: in his opinion, government agencies are absolutely not ready for such changes.

“First of all, because it is a very expensive idea. So far, the President’s Office has not presented a roadmap for such reforms, and therefore we see how some call for replacing judges and investigators with robots, while others fall into shock from this idea, because it is often a problem to banally buy a bottle of wine at a robotic cash desk.

To robotize an administrative service, it is necessary not only to “exclude the human factor” (this is the mantra of artificial intelligence supporters). It is necessary to develop the algorithm of service and control in detail so that an ordinary real-life human civil servants have no opportunities for abuse. Otherwise, instead of scaling mass operations, the bot program will scale the human factor (officials will do their business further, hiding behind the fact that formally the program prepares documents).”

But Maryna Bahrova is convinced that government agencies will slow down the changes, resisting the transition to electronic mode.

“State agencies in Ukraine will resist the unification of information on the provision of electronic public services in one portal. Just look at the resistance of the officials against the merger of the databases of the customs and border guard services into a single base.”

Vasyl Hulai, a doctor of political sciences, a professor, the head of the department of international information of the NU “Lviv Polytechnic”, comments on the reality of the introduction of the changes announced by the president with optimism.

“The optimistic scenario, in my opinion, follows from the fact that a lot of laws and regulations were worked out over the past years in Ukraine, the experience of both consumers of relevant services and their suppliers is being formed; in other words, the idea of “state in a smartphone” in Ukraine is not so new, but rather requires its improvement in terms of the range of administrative services at the district level and the level of local governments, and especially the provision of technical capabilities for the implementation throughout Ukraine.”

What are the risks and how safe is such an initiative?

Serhii Rachynsky agrees in a comment to Opinion: a single electronic services portal does assume the presence of a considerable number of threats.

“First of all, there is a danger to get a low-quality product, which will constantly be refined by developers. Ordering such a portal will be attractive for embezzlement of money by officials. The network of terminals is much cheaper and more reliable in operation”.

But Serhii Poida notes: all risks and dangers must be foreseen in advance by cybersecurity experts in the public service, in the first place by SSU.

“Other risks to get in trouble with scammers are no bigger than in real life. Those who don’t want to use the portal on their own should be able to obtain such services in transparent offices, whose employees will be able to help everyone quickly, they should be able to get the needed services almost without waiting.”

Oleksii Zakharov calls the discrepancy between the functions of the programs and the rights of citizens provided in the Constitution of Ukraine and other laws the greatest risk.

“For example, according to the law, a citizen has the right to submit an appeal in any form to the authority, and – suppose – a computer program will require to somehow classify each appeal, or refer it to a certain type according to the directories available in the program. And if your appeal does not fit into such a directory, you will not submit it. This, by the way, is the disadvantage of the Unified Judicial Information and Telecommunications System. Thus, the state’s vision of how a citizen should behave in a relationship with it, what kind of complaints they can address it with, will define how a citizen will do it.”

But Anastasiia Kazankina, a lawyer of the company “Dubynsky and Osharova”, is convinced that now we can only talk about general risks of implementing such an initiative: access of unauthorized persons to a user’s account, the lack of privacy guarantees, the possibility of intervention in the system and the like.

“An ongoing investigation of the SSU relating to intervention into the computer system of SOE “Information Judicial Systems”, with the help of which crypto farms were functioning on the capacity and powers of SJA of Ukraine from 01.01.2018, is significant in this matter. Moreover, the SSU claims that separate laptops of SOE “IJS” contained the installation file with the function of an audio recording of conversations of an environment.

It is clear that a crypto farm cannot be built on the basis of smartphones. However, will the government ensure that the e-office will have no interventions, also during the electronic elections? And will the personal data of the users be really safe?

As for potential hacker attacks, the example of the PETYA virus confirms that such attempts might occur. However, a question of whether Ukraine is ready to repel such attacks is now left without a clear answer. In any case, this does not mean that the introduction of such changes is not necessary. However, the focus should be primarily on the issue of security. And only if it is possible to comply with it, the introduction of an electronic system can be started.”

Dmytro Snopchenko predicts that from the first days of the portal, or even at the stage of its development, attacks on developers’ servers and test sites will begin. Regarding those who will attack, the expert made a whole list: ordinary scammers, scammers who are trying to possess personal data, hackers – both those who will attack the base with a specific purpose and just “ideological” ones – that is, people who will do it just out of interest. Two more risk groups listed by an expert on information security are system administrators and… its developers and testers.

“Yes, there are such risks. For example, if you hire low-skilled system administrators, the system will constantly fail, or the employees themselves will start to sell data.

Regarding developers and testers, it all depends on the budget and how much it is “cut”. Such a system is not cheap, and there will be many who will want to receive budgetary funds. There may be a situation when, despite political considerations, the order will go to large companies, which in turn will hire performers ten times cheaper than it is desired.

System testing, especially of its safety and stability, should be carried out by a third company that does not have a personal interest in a particular result. In this case, it should be a company from Ukraine, which has a good global reputation in the field of cybersecurity. It is also not cheap, and the question remains whether some funds will be allocated for this.”

Vasyl Hulai, a doctor of political sciences, a professor, the head of the department of international information of the National institute “Lviv Polytechnic” does not exclude risks as well. And at the same time, the expert adds: this is typical for all countries, and the Ukrainian experts will be able to resist this.

“Of course, there are and will be risks of unauthorized access to the relevant resources of public administration and local self-government, attempts to steal personal data of citizens, but such problems are faced and successfully fought by other states. And in the end, Ukraine has its own system of technical protection of information and communication infrastructure, there are specialists who are able to resist those hackers.”

Are Ukrainians ready for such changes?

Serhii Rachynsky is convinced that people are ready to the fact that the government will simplify the bureaucratic procedures, but it is naive to think that all are equally able to use the online services.

“It is also unnecessary to impose the electronic signature to all. It will cause a lot of problems and extra costs. It is important to understand that if the state requires something from a citizen – obtaining a permit, registration, certificate, etc., then people should not pay for it. It all has to be paid from the budget. Such an order should mobilize the state authorities to optimize and minimize these costs. Otherwise, the state will produce more and more “services” for which people will have to pay.”

But Serhii Poida believes that the announced portal will become relevant as soon as people begin to feel the real benefit from it. However, there are obstacles, such as low information culture of citizens.

“This can be dealt with through appropriate training courses. Perhaps the issue of using such services will be acute for people of respectable age. However, a special institution should be created that will provide the opportunity to receive the relevant services. If old people can get to the transparent offices – they will be provided with services there. If not – it can be entrusted to employees of the guardianship. Both public and private ones, with a notarized contract.”

According to Dmytro Snopchenko, only young people aged from 18 to 25 may be ready, because even somewhat older generation (25-35 years old) formed the first distrust of government and all sorts of improvements.

“And an even older generation does not trust global computer systems at all, it is easier for them to do “as before”, to solve all this through acquaintances, housing offices and etc. It all depends on how good and convenient the system is, and whether it is able to win the trust of users. It may take at least 5-7 years, or even more.”

Pavlo Satsky, in turn, is convinced that our society is already sufficiently armed with the technical means and skills of operating them, and therefore it is ready to move the relationship between men and state into electronic form.

“A part of society that does not have sufficient skills to use the electronic form of relations with the state should receive these skills either through training programs or in special counselling centres. This experience is already actively used as training courses on working with a smartphone for all ages and the like.”

Text by Dmytro Zhuravel

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