Estonia: The state of the future?

Featured image courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eu2017ee/36530601213

At first glance Estonia looks like most post-soviet states: comprised of grey soviet architecture and the cold. However, Estonia has been developing something since 2000 that is innovative enough to make the tech geeks of Silicon Valley jealous. Since Estonia gained independence from Russia in 1991, it has been working towards a way to distinguish itself in the international system.  To do this Estonia has thrown itself into large scale technical innovation and has since created a government that operates completely online. With only half of the country connected via phone lines in 1991, Estonia has made tremendous progress having 97% of schools online by 1997, paperless cabinet meetings by 2000, a country-wide free Wi-Fi network by 2002, and e-voting in 2007. Since then, this program has become increasingly efficient enabling the legislation, justice, healthcare, banking, taxes, and policing to be done digitally.

To do this all citizens have a chip and pin card with allows them to access all their information from health records to tax records to education records making control of one’s personal data easier than ever.  Security is taken care of through a filtering system that only allows others such as teachers or healthcare providers to access the relevant information. Additionally, citizens can review who has accessed their information and report anything unusual or unapproved. This system also works through the government’s data platform that does not compile all information in one place, instead, it uses X-Road which links servers through encrypted pathways, thus, allowing information to live where it was produced, such as a bank or hospital. Information is streamlined through Estonia’s ‘once only’ policy which prevents any single piece of information from being entered twice, meaning instead of preparing a loan application, citizens can have all the data required pulled from the system and submitted in one action; and hospital visits are faster, disposing of information forms to be filled out in waiting rooms.

The digitization of Estonia’s government has saved the country two percent of its G.D.P a year in salaries and expenses. This covers the amount Estonia pays to meet its NATO protection requirementsessentially making national security as former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves liked to sayfree.

In order to further make its mark on the international system, Estonia launched its e-residency program in 2014 in order to expand its economic development. What does this all mean? – you might ask. Well, e-residency is designed to allow foreigners to use some of Estonia’s digital services to attract more international businesses to Estonia. E-residency, however, should not be mistaken for citizenship, as it does not allow you to vote, but it does allow international businesses to take advantage of their low business taxes and easy to use banking and tax system, which they are currently trying to link with other international systems like the UK.  The application process costs only about €100 (£88.90) and does not even require a visit to Estonia, but can enable you to join the e-resident community of Estonia with include the likes of the Japanese prime minister.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_gift_selection_of_the_Estonian_Presidency_of_the_Council_of_the_EU_ID_card_reader_(37590072691).jpg

Despite being incredibly economical and its ease of use, being completely wired has its draw backs. As with anything internet-based, the is the ever-present risk of cyber-attacks. The likes of which Estonia has not escaped.  In 2007 after a controversial Russian statue was removed by the Estonian government, Estonia’s digital systems were attacked by hackers. Using botnets, a system where hackers gain control of thousands of computers around the world to flood Estonian internet addresses with network-clogging data. As a result, crashing the online infrastructure of Estonia’s banks and their ATMS, telcos, media outlets, and name servers.  Given that ninety percent of bank transactions at the time were done through the internet, this attack was crippling.

So, is it worth it? It is too soon to say. However, the future is looking bright as Estonia is developing plans to protect its wired government by establishing six “data embassies” around the world. The idea is that in times of national emergency, like one caused by a cyber-attack, Estonia can easily move its systems operations to another server farm outside the country.  If this plan comes to fruition, Estonia will change the relationship between states, nations, and geographical countries. While the nation of Estonia and its geographical boundaries that define its country will remain in the same place, its state with its digital capabilities will be mobile, thus, disconnecting it physically from the nation it serves. While this may seem cold hearted or non-patriotic it could actually benefit Estonia’s nation for the better by disincentivizing cyberattacks.

This idea of a mobile government system may also have implications for nations that wish to become countries. Given its relative low-cost, its mobile nature, and essentially and on/off switch; wired governments could be built by nations like Palestine and set aside until the time is right for quick and effective state formation.  Take this a step further and the future could see this government structure being utilized by insurgencies or in the creation of city-states. 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The mobile capacity of an entire online government has not been put into to action yet, and before it is, the system will need to be further perfected.  Only last year, Estonia was experiencing problems with its data protection and suspended the use of ID cards that had been issued between 2014 and 2017.  To fix the problem the Estonian government required card holders to update their cards, however, with the large amount of people attempting to do this at the same time the system was overburdened causing more delays. While no information was lost or stolen, the precautionary inconvenience affected around 750,000 card holders. Needless to say, this system is still a work in progress.

Although the technical prowess of both governments and hackers will continue to develop in tandem, and mistakes must be made to progress, globalization will make this form of government more and more desirable. Given the added environmentally friendly aspects of a wired government, cutting down commuting and paper to name the most obvious, a wired government might even become a necessity. Estonia’s government may very well be the state of the future.

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