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Latvia's 'official email' project still in the inbox

The possibility of issuing everyone in Latvia with a standardized 'official' email account for official correspondence has been discussed and planned for ten years – but still the project has not been fully implemented, LTV's Forbidden Method investigative show reported March 21.

The rationale is that such an official email address would be useful, for example, in the field of health care prevention, inviting people to tests; it would be useful for municipalities, for reporting local news and events; it would have been useful during the Covid-19 pandemic, and might also be useful at a time when war is raging near Ukraine and people need precise information on what to do in an emergency situation.

Forbidden Method pointed to Denmark as an example. In 2014 it was the first country in the world to introduce and make mandatory a digital mailbox for every citizen over the age of 15. Today, around 4.8 million Danes use this digital tool, more than 90% of the population. Citizens are at one end of this tool, and at the other end - all the state, municipalities and also private institutions. Communication can be two-way. The platform that provides it all is called "e-Boks", and a digital signature is used to register on it.

Amanda Rasmussen, a dual citizen of Latvia and Denmark, who is currently studying anthropology in Denmark, currently lives in Latvia, but is still receiving news from Denmark: "I really like connecting because it's a matter of seconds, we connect with NemID [digital signature]. A message comes to my private e-mail that I have received something in the "e-box", because of course I don't check it every day or even every week."

But in Latvia?

Amanda Rasmussen said about Latvia in comparison with her experience in Denmark: "I have never received anything in my e-mail. And secondly, we have all these portals that we can use. But, for example, I had to sign up to the doctor, and then the big search began - where, what, how, does it work at all? Does anyone use it at all?"

As long ago as February 23, 2011, the incoming government of Valdis Dombrovskis included the creation of an electronic profile for every resident as part of its government action plan. At first, this seemed to be a priority and a target date of August 2012 would have seen it introduced even before Denmark. But more than a decade on, what has happened?

The official e-mail system has been set up as "eAdrese", though not introduced in 2012 as planned, but six years later in 2018. Secondly, currently the official e-mail address has been activated by about 38,000 users or 2% of all Latvians, compared to 90% of Danish people.

Consequently, it cannot really be called a serious channel of information to inform the public at the moment. Many people may not even know of its existence. At present, it has been set as a mandatory tool for public authorities, and for legal entities from 2023, but for citizens it is voluntary.

It does exist

The official portal "Latvija.lv" has a section "Create your e-mail address". To do this, you need an ID card and go through an authentication procedure. Once this is done, communication can take place. And there are people who also use it and find it convenient, but the number of users is very small.

As the State Audit Office concluded in its eAdrese audit at the beginning of last year, in 90% of cases it was used only by state institutions themselves, and even then only by a small number of users.

The audit concludes: "If the trend of individuals not using eAdrese but mainly using it only for communication between institutions continues, investments in the creation of eAddress will be pointless."

The State Audit Office estimates that approximately seven million euros have been invested in developing this system.

The responsible Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development (VARAM) acknowledged that the number of users could be higher.

Gatis Ozols, Undersecretary of State for Digital Transformation at the VARAM, said that people might need help in setting up their email address, but that it had a lot of potential. There are already approximately 700 thousand Latvian residents who have been issued digital ID cards with which they can register an eAddress.

Verification problem

Another problem seems to be the method of authentication used by the eAdrese system. While aroud one million people now use the SmartID authentication tool in conjunction with their bank accounts, it is not currently compatible with eAdrese, which relies on the more complicated official eParakstsMobile app and eID cards.

This was also picked up by the audit report: "Citizens are not used to using eID cards and eParakstsMobile as electronic means of identification for the creation and use of eAdrese on a daily basis, so the widespread use of e-addresses by private individuals will be limited."

There is still a belief that eAdrese has a role to play. A decision has been made on the mandatory use of "eAddress" in defense institutions - among soldiers, national guards and others.

But in the absence of widespread adoption of eAdrese, officials turned to alternative communication channels during the coronavirus pandemic to inform the public of important information. This included the State Revenvue Department's electronic tax declaration system, with which many people are familiar.

Eurostat data for 2020 show that between the ages of 16 and 74, only 43% of the population in Latvia have basic digital skills, compared to 58% in the European Union on average.

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