29 Jun 2017   |   News

Cybersecurity, data exchange rules to top Estonian presidency agenda

EU leadership role an opportunity for Tallinn to boost its status as the bloc’s most technology-enabled member

Estonia will advance several digital files during its six month presidency of the European Union, including cross-border electronic exchange of criminal records, cybersecurity and offshore data backup.

The tiny Baltic country of 1.3 million people will take over the rotating presidency of the EU Council from Malta on Saturday.

The six-month stint will see Estonia lead ministerial meetings and try to broker compromises on sticky legislation. It will also offer the country a prominent place in the shop window – an opportunity to trade on its digital knowledge that the government is only too keen to seize.

Playing on its strengths, the Estonian presidency will be a digitally focussed one, said Kaja Tael, Estonian Ambassador to the EU, in a briefing with reporters to outline her country’s presidency goals on Monday. “We are happy to show off a little bit – show the others what is possible,” she said. The country has planned almost 50 digitally-themed conferences.

One of Estonia’s goals is to modernise the cross-border electronic exchange of criminal records. “This is an area – databases and interoperability – where we are comfortable,” said Tael.

The presidency also promises “high-speed work” to strengthen cybersecurity rules in the bloc.

Ransomware and data blockers

Estonia has dark memories of cyber-attacks. In 2007 the government watched, helplessly, as cyber-attackers bombarded dozens of Estonian banks, government websites and newspapers, in a month-long campaign that also threatened to disable emergency services. Many commentators afterwards described the siege as the first instance of cyber-warfare.

To raise awareness of internet attacks, the most recent wave coming this week from the “Petya” ransomware, the official presidency gift pack includes a USB data blocker, which allows you to charge a mobile device in a public location via USB, while preventing any viruses from being installed.

Tael says Estonia’s ultimate goal is to see data move unrestricted throughout EU, the same way that capital, workers, goods and services – “the four freedoms” – do.

“Some day we might talk about five freedoms in Europe,” she said. “We know we’re not there yet but we can get the ball rolling. Estonians are hugely pragmatic people. We are Protestants and we usually grab the bull by the horns and get straight into it,” Tael added.

Estonia is an unlikely tech star, the original home for two of Europe’s biggest internet success stories: video chat platform Skype and peer-to-peer lender TransferWise. Two decades ago, only half the population had a phone line, delivered by a system which dated back to 1938. Today, the country is saturated with free Wi-Fi.

It has arguably the world’s most digitised bureaucracy. The country has won a lot of praise for its pioneering e-government network called X-road, which allows people to file taxes within five minutes using pre-filled forms, manage their banking, easily register businesses, apply for child benefits, pay for parking tickets, vote, or receive a medical prescription, all in a matter of minutes and from a single website.

“Once you have declared your taxes from a riverbank inside two minutes, you won’t want to go back to paper,” said Tael.

Bilateral data agreements

In advance of the presidency, Estonian Prime minister Jüri Ratas has been meeting eastern European leaders to drum up support for e-government and digital single market cybersecurity. “Digital Europe is one of the top priorities for [us],” Ratas said at a meeting with the president of the European Parliament last month.

During a visit to Bucharest, Ratas said that building a “digital European community which guarantees the free circulation of data” will be one of the main focus areas of the Estonian presidency.

Romanian Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, who has just been ousted through a no-confidence vote by his own party, told Ratas that his administration was open to cooperating with Estonia on developing smarter e-government solutions in Romania, but it is not yet clear whether the new government will continue working on this commitment.

However, during the presidency, the Estonian prime minister will be seeking to make bilateral agreements with as many countries as possible. Ratas has also met with prime ministers of Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovenia to “promote and develop a digital Europe — including the free movement of data,” the Estonian government said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Estonia signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Luxembourg, to set up a virtual data embassy there. These embassies work as a backup storage for e-government data.

An eye on research and innovation

The Estonian presidency will also keep an eye on the midterm evaluation of the EU Horizon 2020 research programme, and try to shape the “political discussion on FP9,” Indrek Reimand, deputy secretary general for higher education and research at the Estonian government, told Science|Business in an interview.

Estonia wants to prioritise the societal impact of research funding. “We have to broaden the scope of impact felt by the society,” says Reimand.

Also, the next research programme should do better in terms of international partnerships as they are difficult to organise under Horizon 2020, argues Reimand. “They do not work optimally and they are hard to manage,” he says.

The Commission would probably agree with this assessment, having watched the participation rate from scientists outside the EU fall to 2.2 per cent under Horizon 2020, roughly half the rate seen in Framework Programme 7.

Research salaries pose another problem that needs fixing. Until recently, Horizon 2020 salaries for researchers working in poorer countries of the EU were “very prohibitive,” says Reimand. The rules have since been changed and those researchers who were affected now receive fairer salaries.

However, salary rules are still not in favour of countries in central and southeastern Europe, where researchers still receive lower salaries than their western counterparts. The argument goes that the cost of living in the new member states is much lower than in Germany or the Netherlands, but the cost gap is closing faster than the pay gap. “The difference in living costs is vanishing and salaries are still frozen,” says Reimand, who argues that a more even playing field will help generate an “even spread of research investment and benefits” regardless of geographical location.

Never miss an update from Science|Business

Newsletter sign-up