There is a country where 99 percent of the government administration happens online. Its citizens can handle almost all of their public service needs from the comfort of their own homes every hour of the week. Marriage, divorce, and real-estate transactions, for which one still has to venture out of the house, are the only exceptions. They have access to digital health data and pay hassle-free tax online. Over 85 percent of schools use an e-School system and purely digital study materials. It takes just a few hours and an Internet connection to set up a company. The country is Estonia, a pioneer in converting public services into flexible e-solutions which is often cited as the ultimate benchmark for how citizens should engage with government for their daily needs.
Estonia is relatively new to its independence. When it declared itself a sovereign nation and stepped out of the shadow of Soviet occupation in 1991, there were a few resources available in the way of technology. Less than half of its citizens had a phone line and the general population did not have the Internet or even devices with which to take advantage of the Internet.
The first Prime Minister of Estonia, Mart Laar, brought about the shift that would change the shape of his country’s future. Laar decided to invest in IT solutions while pushing the country through modernization, laying the foundation needed for the country to take an information technology route. In 2002, Estonia first started its electronic ID program and became “effectively, a disconnected society,” according to a World Bank report. The initiative enhanced Estonians’ digital awareness and constructed nationwide Internet access points.
However, the push for change was still in motion. Estonia acknowledged the need to build a strong digital information infrastructure for e-IDs to thrive. This became the reason behind Estonia creating X-Road, a secure data exchange for citizens, private companies, and public institutions that links information instead of storing data. X-Road allows people to use their e-IDs to access information regarding public services. A resident with an e-ID can accomplish everything, from filing taxes, reviewing medical reports, to voting through X-Road. Additionally, the service has a backup system on servers in Luxembourg designed to make the government function even during an invasion.
E-Estonia has equipped its citizens with state-issued digital identification regardless of their location. Anyone can provide digital signatures using their ID-card, Mobile-ID, or Smart-ID, allowing citizens to safely identify themselves and the state to authenticate people without physical contact. To borrow a description from the Estonian government itself, this was a step “moving towards the idea of a county without borders.” Non-residents are also allowed to apply for ID cards which enable them to have the same access to Estonia’s various electronic services that a permanent resident would be given.
The trust among e-ID users and the strong individual oversight over personal data are the primary driving forces which made E-Estonia a reality. E-ID users can easily check which X-Road participants hold their information and which of them can or already have accessed it. A strong transparency policy enforces proper usage, as well as E-ID users taking action themselves against any suspected violations of their privacy.
With the advent of the digital age, we have begun to form new conceptions of governance, social management, and ethics in data ownership. If the government of the people is meant to be for the people, it must become even more convenient and accessible all the way down to the least privileged of its citizens. While the Estonian system may not be the answer for every country, it provides a window into what it would look like if governments were committed to adapting with the times and provided sustainable services which simultaneously enforce the individual right to privacy and control over personal data.