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In 1991, Estonia declared restoration of independence from the Soviet Union. With this announcement came the most challenging and defining time in every country’s history: establishment.
The country’s limited funds meant that the new administration couldn’t open government offices in every town and had to do something different to enable residents to access public services. Thinking creatively, the administration established technology as the solution and passed the Principles of Estonian Information Policy. This policy earmarked 1% of the GDP as stable state funding for IT.
This decision led to the creation of e-Estonia, driving the trend that has led to 99% of government services being available digitally in Estonian society today.
E-identity, interoperability services, healthcare, e-governance and much more are all a part of e-Estonia. In fact, there are only two things you cannot do online with the government in Estonia: marriage and divorce.
The concept of e-Estonia was officially introduced in 2002, and it has since become mandatory to have a personal ID code registered with the government.
“We basically copy-pasted this from Finland; however, we made it work,” said Sandra Särav, Estonia’s previous global affairs director in an interview with ZDNet. “In Finland, the ID card still doesn’t work because it’s not mandatory. This is why many countries fail when they introduce new ID systems—it has to be mandatory for everyone. But you have to make it appealing.”
At first glance, requiring every citizen to have a registered government ID number can be considered a serious encroachment of an individual’s rights. However, there is no data kept on the Estonian ID card. The microchip contains a public and private key so users can authenticate themselves, but it doesn’t contain any data. This card is how citizens access all of the e-Estonia services.
The platform operates on two key principles: the government only asks for data once and everything is digital by default. Särav explained how the first principle is followed from a technological perspective: “We have distributed databases and have those databases talking to each other…there’s a machine-to-machine exchange and I don’t need to resubmit any data again. The second principle means the introduction of any new service is done digitally.”
e-Estonia aims to be fully digital end-to-end—no phone calls, office visits or physical paperwork.
70% of adults in America say that their personal data is less secure now than it was five years ago due to concerns about digital privacy. Furthermore, another Pew Research Center study showed that Americans feel they are under surveillance when in public and have little control over the data that is collected about them.
This data is indicative of a larger trend in society encouraging skepticism towards technology. In light of this tendency, how are 70% of Estonians regularly using their ID card to access e-Estonia services?
Särav accredited this success to the truth by design elements of the government system. Individuals and companies each own their own data and only they can permit others to gain access to this sensitive data.
“Medical professionals can see my medical data, when a policeman stops me they can see my driver’s licence data, also if I have insurance, also if this is my car in the first place, etc,” stated Särav. “Only if you have granted them access—it’s always consent-based.”
On an international level, many see Estonia as an inspiring example. After all, you can open a business in 18 minutes—that’s the world record.
In 2014, former President Barack Obama visited Estonia. During his visit, he quipped that he “should have called the Estonians” while setting up his healthcare website, which is indicative of his admiration for the e-government setup, and potentially, a similar system in identity.
Iain Sherman, managing director of the UK telecom company KCOM’s national network service, believes e-Estonia has become the “benchmark” for how to deliver a digital society that benefits citizens.
“For many people in business, tax returns are something they’ll put off until the Christmas period because it takes so long to do in countries like Britain,” says Sherman in an interview with NS Business. “If only we had this e-Estonia system where all your earnings are automatically integrated—the time and cost savings must be incredible. Being able to access services online brings down the level of bureaucracy and makes everything more convenient to allow businesses to concentrate on what’s important to them.”
As of now, the Estonian government is by far one of the most technologically advanced. It remains to be seen whether they have started an international trend toward digitizing services that many governments will follow.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sarah Raza is a Tech Innovation Fellow with a background in computer science from Stanford University. She is passionate about exploring the implications of increased usage of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
ABOUT IDENTITY REVIEW
Identity Review is a digital think tank dedicated to discussing issues in regards to the evolving data economy. We work with governments, financial institutions and technology leaders on advancing digital transformation, with a focus on privacy, identity, and security. Want to learn more about Identity Review’s work in digital transformation? Please message us at email@example.com.
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