​X-Road middleware: Turning point for secure data transfer between nations?

By the first half of next year, Estonian and Finnish tax offices could be exchanging data securely, paving the way for wider use of the X-Road technology.

open road

Estonia paving the way to share data across international borders.

Image: Radisa Zivkovic

Estonia's Information System Authority, RIA, has unveiled the next version of X-Road, its internet-based middleware layer for securely exchanging data between government agencies.

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X-Road also gives citizens access to personal data held and processed in public-sector databases.

But previous versions of X-Road were built for domestic use. That changes with this sixth and latest version, which makes cross-border communication possible as well.

It enables secure data exchange between Estonian databases and registers and those of other countries that use systems similar to X-Road.

Estonia's goal is to facilitate daily data exchange between national tax authorities, population registers, and other institutions and enterprises.

The first country that will have this kind of X-road-based co-operation with Estonia is Finland.

Two years ago the then-RIA head Jaan Priisalu said the main question was which data exchange layer model would be chosen for a pan-European e-service.

"If we get the cross-border e-services between Estonia and Finland to work, the X-Road model has a good chance of being implemented in other European countries as well," he said.

Two years ago Finland announced that it was going to study Estonia's X-Road and build its own system. "The aim is to develop cross-border e-services. The time table is still open, but the sooner the better," commented Pauli Kartano, ICT project manager at Finland's ministry of finance, told ZDNet in September 2013.

In the middle of November this year the Finnish environment was officially launched. This development means the technical cooperation capabilities between Estonian and Finnish X-Road exist, and now it is just a matter of signing official agreements between their users to start data transmissions.

According to Information System Authority's X-Road line manager Heiko Vainsalu, the cross-border data exchange between Estonia's and Finland's state systems could start in the first half of next year.

"Creating the kind of prerequisites for the cooperation involves analysis, explanations, and agreements that enable the members of X-road to understand the security levels of the info system or info systems with which they're willing to exchange data," Vainsalu says.

"At the same time, it's necessary to explain and also to regulate at a certain level what members of X-road have to reckon with and the practical steps they have to take when launching this kind of data exchange.

Vainsalu says it is up to X-road members to create agreements, adding that so far the tax offices of both countries have shown the biggest interest in having this kind of international data exchange.

He explains that although the switch to the sixth version of X-road has already been launched, it will require a lot of effort from RIA and members of X-road over the next 12 months to put the new version into full use.

"These types of transitions take a lot of resources and time. So right now we're concentrating on getting it done as successfully as possible," he says.

The safety features of the new version of X-road are created in accord with the European Commission's Electronic identification and trust services, eIDAS.

This EU regulation, applied in July 2014, was created to boost confidence and convenience in secure and seamless cross-border electronic transactions by promoting the widespread use of electronic identification and trust services.

Vainsalu explains that in the sixth version of X-road the technology to verify all messages is brought into line with eIDAS by using e-stamps.

"The change in the technology means compared with previous versions you don't need a third party to verify that the message exchange took place. In the new version, every message will be verified by the e-stamp which is equal to the signature, " he says.

"To make this secure data exchange possible, every member of the X-road must use qualified trusteeships and keep certificates on secure digital signature devices."

Two years ago when the future co-operation between Estonia and Finland was announced, other surrounding countries were curious about it, but rather cautious to take similar steps towards copying the X-road system.

Because that specific co-operation between Estonia and Finland shows every sign of proving successful, interest from other countries is already beginning to emerge.

"The representatives of Sweden have already been to Finland and Estonia to acquaint themselves with the launch of the X-road system," Vainsalu says.

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