Identity Crisis

This week I attended the press launch of what on the face of it looks like a timely and practical new service: the arrival of the e-Signature. I’ve chronicled in the past some of the frustrating and absurd wrestles with bureaucracy that are an integral part of doing any sort of business in Latvia.

Part of me hates writing about such things – they are a terrible cliche, and whenever one sees the word ‘Kafkaesque’ in a piece about Eastern Europe one should prepare to turn the page. So I generally say ‘Kafkaean’ in the hope that the reader will become so confused and agitated about which form is correct that they will cease to notice the predictability of what follows.

Anyway, with luck e-Signature will make it less necessary to argue the toss expensively with jobsworths in poorly-lit offices, who will then send you warning letters to addresses which they have informed you do not exist.

Rather than the one-off registration fee I had been expecting, people signed up for e-signature (which of course still requires users to mail in their original example) will be charged pro rata for the privilege of scribbling their names in a digitised format at a rate of 29 santimes per inscription or 7 lats for unlimited use for a calendar year. This latter service will probaby be of interest to businesses and people who regularly get asked for their autograph.

The whole scheme is being run by LVRTC, the Latvian radio and television centre which controls broadcasting and electronic communications in the country. They were predictably bullish about the scheme and confident about its security. I am certainly no expert on matters such as these, but it seemed that their faith in the integrity of “the cloud” where the info will actually be stored was a little too fullsome.

I recall hearing the interesting futurologist Paul Saffo predicting a major cloud security breach a little more than a year ago and sure enough it came to pass when China decided to virtually raid Google. I’m not sure what good it would do China to know about my VAT payments (though I would welcome the help of their sovereign funds in making them) but I’m pretty sure that if they wanted to get hold of my e-Signature they could.

In any case Latvia’s track record on IT security is not without its blemishes, though it should be noted that with a couple of exceptions services such as online banking are among the best in the world.

But that’s a secondary concern really. The primary concern became clear immediately after the e-Signature press conference, which was held at the Reval Latvija (I refuse to acknowledge its stupid rebranding as the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija).

On the other side of the street is the cabinet office, a building I have visited dozens of times. As a cabinet meeting was about to wind up, I decided to wander over and see if any ministers were saying anything interesting.

I presented my fresh 2011 media accreditation card to the security guard. He shook his head.

“That’s no good. You need a different accreditation,” he mumbled.

“But this is the correct accreditation,” I insisted. “This is the foreign media accreditation card. I have been in here hundreds of times with this.”

“No good. The rules changed at the beginning of the year,” he insisted.

Having been turned out on my ear, I tried to get to the bottom of the matter. I rang the foreign ministry, which issues the cards to foreign media. Even though this is the fourth year I have had this accreditation, I still have to fill in all the same forms and supply all the same documentation every year. Indeed the amount of documentation has actually increased with time. Back in December I had even had to send the foreign ministry a copy of the very card they had issued me that year in order for them to issue me with a card for this year.

(As an aside, in Estonia the foreign ministry will renew cards automatically as long as no details have changed. In contrast I haven’t bothered to renew my Lithuanian accreditation as in previous years it has taken nearly half the year for the card to actually come into my possession.)

I asked the foreign ministry if the rules had changed and their cards were no longer kosher at the cabinet office. They didn’t know, so I turned to the cabinet office itself, which did come up with an explanation.

It turned out that the foreign ministry had forgotten to send samples of its 2011 accreditation cards to the cabinet office for security approval by the relevant deadline, so therefore their cards had not been included on the list of acceptable ID. Technically the security guard had been correct and for the first month of the year no foreign media would have been able to get into the cabinet office.

It should be noted that the 2011 cards are absolutely identical to the 2010 cards in every respect apart from the date.

With the help of the cabinet office the foreign ministry ID cards were added to the list within minutes and all was well in the world.

Now, such a glitch is no more than a minor annoyance, but it did throw into rather ironic relief the bold claims of hassle-free ID made at the e-Signature event an hour earlier. If the authorities can’t coordinate the ID cards for a dozen foreign hacks, can they really sort out a grand database involving all the major databases in the country: the business register, tax office, social security departments, car registry and more?

e-Signature will prove one of two things: either how desperately Latvia wants and needs to modernise its bureaucracy, or how it secretly loves and wants to retain all that Soviet-era red tape and rubber stamps.

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