UN Development Program Believes Ukraine’s Digital ID and Governance Platform Is Ready to “Go International”

Ukraine is “building the most convenient digital state in the world — without corruption, without bureaucracy, absolutely paperless, and open for everyone.” And the UNDP, like USAID, is fully on board.

Through its “Diia” digital ID and governance platform, launched in February 2020, the Zelensky government seeks to create a system that will make Ukraine the most “convenient” State in the world. This is what Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation and Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov told participants of the 2021 edition of the WEF’s Young Global Leaders program, of which he is an alumnus. He is also a graduate of the NATO Educational School in Kiev.

Diia is today used by close to 19 million Ukrainians and has nine digital credentials on its platform: the national ID card, the identity provider (IDP) certificate for network access, birth certificate, passport, driving license, tax number, student card, and vehicle registration certificate.

Accelerating Ukraine’s Digital Transformation, Even During War

Ukraine’s Diia system was recently the subject of a gushing article by the United Nations Development Program. Titled “The World is Very Turbulent, and You Adapt,” the article lays out how Ukraine is accelerating its digital transformation, even during war:

Despite being plunged into war, Ukraine is forging ahead with a comprehensive re-think of how business is conducted, and how Ukrainian people interact with each other and with their government.

“We are building the most convenient digital state in the world — without corruption, without bureaucracy, absolutely paperless, and open for everyone,” Ms. Ionan [Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation] says.

The online portal and a mobile application for public services is called Diia, which is Ukrainian for ‘action’.

It aims to move all public services online, cover the entire country with internet access, close the gender and generational gaps in digital literacy, and make Ukraine the most welcoming country in the world for IT companies.

The claim that Ukraine’s digitised system of governance will transform the country from one which until recently (i.e., before the war) was widely spoken about as one of the most corrupt in Europe into one where corruption ceases to exist is altogether, of course, risible. So, too, is the notion that an “absolutely paperless” bureaucracy is somehow a desirable outcome despite all the inherent security risks. Also, the idea that Ukraine will become the most welcoming country in the world for big tech companies once the Russian bombs have stopped falling seems a little far-fetched. For a start, it assumes that the West will retain significant control of Ukraine once the dust from the war has settled.

That’s not to say that Silicon Valley big tech companies and large financial institutions are not heavily involved in Ukraine’s Diia project. After all, the purpose of Diia is not just to digitize public services but to automate, outsource and privatise them, as Fedorov told the WEF’s 2021 class of Young Global Leaders:

The Government needs to become as flexible and mobile as an IT company, to automate all functions and services, significantly change the structure, reduce 60% of officials, introduce large-scale privatization and outsourcing of government functions.

The government has been true to its word. Ukraine’s e-banking system is predicated on a Memorandum of Understanding with Visa while an electronic census is run by Apple. Amazon Web Services used its AWS Snowball — a petabyte-scale data transport service that uses secure devices to transfer data into and out of the AWS Cloud — to help Kiev migrate huge troves of data from multiple ministries to Poland in the early days of the war, picking up a Ukrainian peace prize in the process. Meanwhile, Google is effectively running large parts of Diia, as Fedorov proudly admitted last December:

“Google services have become our infrastructure. The tools provided by the company allowed the Government to function quickly and efficiently despite the shelling and constant threats of cyber attacks. In addition, Google ensures protection and security of Ukrainians’ data and promotes development of our entrepreneurs. On the other hand, the company pays great attention to human capital. In particular, it supports the initiatives of the Diia Digital Education project.

“State in a Smartphone”

In its article, the UNDP does not raise a single concern about the Zelensky government’s “State in a Smartphone” model of digital governance, which includes plans to hold local, parliamentary and presidential elections through the Diia app — an idea that was endorsed way back in February 2020 by Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council as a means of “greatly reduc[ing] the scope for electoral fraud” in the country.

Yet just two months later the American Association of the Advancement of Science issued an open letter to US governors, secretaries of state and electoral boards urging them “to refrain from allowing the use of any internet voting system” warning of possible vote manipulation and numerous security vulnerabilities, “including potential denial of service attacks, malware intrusions, and mass privacy violations, remain possible in internet voting.”

A group of Ukrainian cybersecurity analysts have flagged a host of other concerns including Diia’s potential for use in frauds and scams; the lack of an account disabling option; its exclusionary effects (some citizens cannot afford or do not know how to use the Diia app); its dependence on an Internet connection and a functioning electricity grid (currently not the case in Ukraine, or for the foreseeable future); and the lack of transparency and accountability of the organizations running the app. The app also creates an excessively centralized form of governance as well as a highly automated system of social and economic control and exclusion.

As the even the World Economic Forum, one of the world’s biggest supporters of digital IDs, admitted in a 2018 report, while verifiable digital identities “create new markets and business lines” for companies, especially those in the tech industry that help to operate the ID systems while no doubt vacuuming up the data, for individuals they (emphasis my own) “open up (or close off) the digital world with its jobs, political activities, education, financial services, healthcare and more.”

None of these concerns get a mention in the UNDP article, however…

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