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. Instead it is full of effusive praise for Ukraine’s bold experiment with digital governance. At one point Ms Ionan is quoted as saying that her goal is to “make everyone fall in love with digital:”
We want this communication between citizens and government to be a few clicks and that’s all. You don’t need to spend some time standing in some queues, waiting for some paper. It’s nonsense.
The article concludes by stating that “Diia is ready to go international, and Ms. Ionan is eager to share Ukraine’s knowledge and resources with the world.”
A slightly closer look at the article reveals why UNDP is so enthusiastic about Diia. In small print under one of the photos is this disclosure:
“The UNDP, with funding from Sweden, supported the development of 23 e-services, which were launched by the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine on the Diia app and portal.”
Diia also receives funding from the European Union’s eu4digital initiative and USAID. As readers may recall, USAID’s administrator and inveterate neocon Samantha Power announced at this year’s Annual Meeting at Davos that Washington is hoping to export the “success” of Ukraine’s e-governance digital identity app, Diia to other countries around the world that are struggling with corruption.
Power was joined on the panel by Fedorov, who thanked USAID for all the help it had given in setting up Diia. That help included purchasing and delivering tens of thousands of Elon Musk’s Starlink wireless broadband terminals so that the Diia app could continue to function even as war descended on Ukraine. But within weeks outages in the communication devices were being reported across the country, making it impossible for many people to use the government app.
Fedorov also said that Kiev is ready to share its “expertise with other countries, because digitisation is the foundation of transparency and democracy,” which is probably news to most readers.
Ukraine’s digitization of government services predates the conflict with Russia but as I noted in my post, USAID Quietly Unveils Plans to Export Ukraine’s Digital Governance Model Around World, it has been significantly expanded since the hostilities began, in the eternal spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste:
Just as the combat theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan served as testing grounds for the mass harvesting and storage of sensitive biometric data, some of which fell into the hands of the Taliban when the US abandoned Afghanistan, war-torn Ukraine is being used to pilot the rapid construction of an all-encompassing digital governance system.
That system is now being exported to other countries. One country that is currently working to replicate Ukraine’s digital ID system is Estonia, which is already one of the world’s most digitized countries. As Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas noted a few months ago, the move represents a “new chapter” in the two countries’ digital cooperation.
#Estonia tests new government app based on Ukraine’s #Diia – great example how governments share and build technology together. It's also a new chapter in our digital cooperation.#Ukraine has built a stong digital government. State and services are running well also during war. https://t.co/BhUx2ZLIlO
— Kaja Kallas (@kajakallas) January 18, 2023
Big Moves on Both Sides of the Atlantic
Both the EU and the US are scrambling to set up their own respective digital ID and government systems. At the same time their central banks are working around the clock to develop a digital euro and a digital dollar. The two go hand in hand together. In 2021, the FT noted “it will be nigh on impossible to issue [retail CBDCs] outside of a comprehensive national digital ID management system.” Then, a few weeks ago, Christine Lagarde admitted in a telephone conversation she thought she was having with Zelensky but in fact was having with a notorious prankster that a digital euro will be used to control what payments people can make.
Also, the fact that governments around the world are developing central bank digital currencies without fully thinking through their potential ramifications is hardly comforting. As the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Kristalina Georgieva recently admitted, the world would see a very “significant transformation” as a result of retail CBDCs:
We think that wholesale CBDCs [which are meant to be used in inter-bank settlements] can be put in place with fairly little space for undesirable surprises. Whereas retail CBDCs, they completely transform the financial system in a way that we don’t quite know what consequences it could bring.
By next year all EU member states will have to make a Digital Identity Wallet available to every citizen who wants one, providing (in the words of the European Commission) “a powerful enabler of digital operations that require cross-border identity recognition”. On the other side of the Atlantic, unbeknown to most US citizens, the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee recently passed the Improving Digital Identity Act by 11 votes to one. The legislation now awaits debate at the full Senate.
If the legislation is passed, setting up the necessary infrastructure should be relatively easy. Speaking on a panel about Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) at the IMF’s Spring Meetings a couple of weeks ago, India’s digital ID architect and Infosys co-founder, Nandan Nilekani spelled out what every nation will need to build their own digital public infrastructure (DPI):
If you think, ‘what are the tools of the New World?‘ — Everybody should have a digital ID; everybody should have a bank account; everybody should have a smartphone. Then, anything can be done. Everything else is built on that.
"What are the tools of the New World? Everybody should have a digital ID; everybody should have a bank account; everybody should have a smartphone. Then, anything can be done. Everything else is built on that": @NandanNilekani to @IMFNews #DigitalID #DigitalIdentity #IMFmeetings pic.twitter.com/6HIAqfBigz
— Tim Hinchliffe (@TimHinchliffe) April 19, 2023
The United Nations is also playing a leading role in promoting digital identity and digital governance systems around the world. In September last year, the 77th session of the UN General Assembly hosted an event titled “The Future of Digital Cooperation: Building Resilience Through Safe, Trusted, and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure.” The event brought together “high-level representatives from governments, civil society, the private sector, philanthropy, and international organizations” to discuss ways of “scal(ing) up efforts to build safe, trusted, and inclusive digital public infrastructure (DPI) for a more sustainable, equitable world.”
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres hailed the event as “an opportunity to set in place building blocks for a bold vision of inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure that leaves no one behind and accelerates implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
The initiative’s four sponsors — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (who else?), the Kingdom of Norway, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany and the EU’s Horn of Africa Initiative — pledged $295 million to “support the development and adoption of inclusive DPI (digital public infrastructure), scaling technical assistance, and deeper capacity building.” The event showcased “pioneering” DPI initiatives being rolled out in countries around the world, including Estonia, Norway, Peru, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Timor-Leste, Togo, India, and, yes, Ukraine.
But who is leading the charge here: the United Nations or the World Economic Forum?
This is a hugely important question given the influence the WEF wields over the UN today after signing a strategic partnership agreement with the multilateral body in June 2019 “aimed at accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” As the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which connects over 280 NGOs, social movements and advocates across more than 75 countries, warned at the time “the agreement gives transnational corporations preferential and deferential access to the UN system at the expense of States and public interest actors.”
A few months later, Yves cross-posted a stark interview with Harris Gleckman, senior fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability and the author of ‘Multistakeholder Governance and Democracy : A Global Challenge,‘ who described the agreement as a betrayal of “We the Peoples”:
The UN Charter starts with the words “We the Peoples”. What the Secretary-General is doing through the Global Compact and now through the partnership with the World Economic Forum is tossing this out the window. He is saying: I’m going to align the organization with a particular structural relationship with multinationals, with multistakeholderism, and set aside attention to all the different peoples of the world in their particular interests of environment, health, water needs and really talk about how to govern the world with those who have a particular role in creating problems of wars from natural resources, of creating problems relating to climate, creating problems relating to food supply and technologies.
As I document in my book Scanned, the WEF has been pushing for the roll out of digital IDs since at least 2018, when attendees of its Annual Meeting in Davos — including representatives of the world’s biggest banks, corporations and tech companies — “committed to shared cooperation on advancing good, user-centric digital identities. Since then,” the resulting report notes, “a broader group of stakeholders have joined the conversation: experts, policymakers, business executives, practitioners, rights advocates, humanitarian organizations and civil society.”
Their vision is now unfolding before our eyes, and one of the biggest testing grounds is war-torn Ukraine.