Is Latvia ready for e-signatures?

With phishing, pharming and other identity-related scams on the increase, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell who actually sent the e-mail sitting in your inbox, whether the associated MIcrosoft Word attachment can be trusted and whether the Web link provided to resubmit your personal details actually belongs to that authority. The e-signature smart card launched by Latvia Post on Oct. 4 proposes to address some of these problems by providing a secure method for the exchange of documents and other information electronically.

No more running around the various institutions and government departments, notarising countless documents, trying to find out when and where to go and spending unproductive hours in queues—the e-signature will introduce a whole new way of working for both the individual dealing with government services and for businesses interacting with both the government and their counterparts. The impact will be huge, requiring a radical change of thinking and an entirely different mode of operation especially in Latvia’s public sector. With the e-signature service and time stamping features you will theoretically be able to track electronically how your submitted document is traversing through the various departments during the approval process.

But what is the reality today? The Rīga Municipal Council is on board, but is yet to provide any compelling applications requiring the exclusive use of the e-signature. This is expected to improve with further development of the technical infrastructure. Up until now the State Revenue Department offered its own electronic service that required that you sign a special contract, but with the new e-signature you will soon be able to submit 90 percent of the required declarations and tax reports. Parex Bank claims it will take new American Express credit card applications via the e-signature service, but Hansabank is still looking for the killer application that will include the e-signature into its next essential banking service. Although the e-signature service complies with international standards, no agreements have yet been signed outside the borders of Latvia.

To apply for your e-signature you will need to go to one of the nominated branches of Latvia Post, present your passport, complete an application form and come back two weeks later to pick up your e-signature smart card. For individuals the cost is LVL 24 for two years and an additional 35 santīms for each transaction. For small- and medium-sized businesses the cost is LVL 47, which includes a smart card USB reader and the first 100 transactions free of charge. Thereafter the cost is 25 santīms per transaction. If you are a heavy user, then choose the unlimited plan for LVL 90. Surprisingly, Latvia Post still does not accept credit cards as payment, but this facility has been promised to be introduced by the end of the year. The prices may at first seem rather steep, but as businesses begin to realise the cost and time benefits achieved it will become an essential part of their daily operations.

You can view a video clip of how to use the e-signature service at, the post office’s official site for the project. Even though the promotional brochures and video clip features Macintosh computers, Macintosh users will not be able to use this service until Latvia Post has produced a version for the platform. Linux users have also been left out. I would have liked to have seen a much simpler interface even for the current Windows version. Right-click with your mouse on the document or file, choose “Add signature” or “Add signature and e-mail” from the submenu and everything should just happen in the background. No doubt when third-party programmers get access to the software libraries we should see further improvements in usability.

For Latvian citizens living outside of Latvia the e-signature service will be a welcome step forward as more government services become available on the Internet and offer a new, convenient way to participate in the 10th Saeima elections in 2010.

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