How Estonia’s ‘data embassies’ are bringing the future to the Baltic nation’s present

  • Charu Gupta, None, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 19, 2015 10:52 IST

In the Estonian language there is no distinct future tense. Verbs in present tense do well for the future as well.

That has not prevented Estonia from imagining a bright future. With its digital prowess, the tiny Baltic nation of a mere 1.3 million people is fast bringing the future to the present.

From banking, buying parking space, e-signing of documents, filing tax returns, voting and building a multi-layered defence, Estonia is shifting its important assets to cyberspace, moving away from physical land: a smart nation that could serve as a prototype for Indian smart cities. But at least part of Estonia’s motivation for e-governance is different. The former Soviet republic lives in the shadow of Russia, and fears of expansionism by its giant neighbour were only underlined when the Russians invaded Crimea last year.

“E-services, processes, and information systems (including digital records of evidential value) that are essential for the digital continuity of the state are constantly updated and mapped, and they have mirror and backup alternatives. Virtual embassies will ensure the functioning of the state, regardless of Estonia’s territorial integrity,” notes the country’s Cyber Security Strategy 2014-2017, whose release coincided with the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The task of shifting the most vital swathes of data away is already on. Estonia is working on what it calls “data embassies” whereby important national databases -- including the registry of citizens -- will also be stored on servers located outside Estonia but under the control of the state.

Siret Schutting, the managing director of e-Estonia Showroom, a part of Enterprise Estonia, the country’s leading incubator for companies and policy ideas, says, “You can take our land but not our country. Estonia will never cease to be. No land, no country won’t happen again.”

Her words are echoed by Hannes Hanso, the head of Estonian parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “During the Soviet times we were occupied by Moscow. We don’t want to be under Moscow again. We don’t have happy memories of those times,” he said.

Minimum government maximum governance

Almost 600 government services are available online and are inter-linked. This has drastically reduced the need for bureaucracy.

For demographic reasons -- a country of mere 1.3 million people --Estonia does not have enough people to do all these jobs. ICT services are not a luxury but a necessity.

The country has a single e-services portal that provides all these services. A single log-in using one’s electronic or mobile ID is sufficient to access these services that range from social security benefits to healthcare to viewing and correcting one’s personal data.

The electronic ID card needs a reader so the mobile ID is a convenient and a handy option. It allows Estonians to use their mobile phones to access e-services and sign documents digitally. These mobile-ID SIM cards, which have private keys stored on them authentication and signing, can be given by service providers.

“I can safely say that you can sign a job contract while you are fishing hundreds of kilometres away. Estonia has delinked the need for physical presence and working on a job,” said Katrin Saks, the vice-chairperson of the Social Democratic Party, which is part of the country’s ruling coalition.

In 2014, all tax returns were filed online, almost all medical prescriptions are issued online and banking services are wholly paperless. E-voting has been available since 2005.

Data protection

Data is the Holy Grail and is bound to invite bounty hunters. In 2007, a massive cyber attack hit banking services, ministries and even the website of parliament. Though the culprits were not nailed, it spurred tightening of defences.

There is no central database. Both public and private enterprises get to choose their own system.

The Estonian information system’s authority helps protect data for both private and public sector. An emergency response team is also in place to deal with a 2007-like situation.

An “army” of volunteers – a cyber defence league -- has been raised, so to speak. IT experts command high salaries, employing them full-time would have been expensive. Teachers, lawyers, economists and doctors -- anyone who is a computer expert -- can chip in if the situation demands.

To stay ahead of hackers, ID encryption is hefty. The biggest safeguard, however, is that data protection is guaranteed by the constitution.

People are the owners of their data and not the state, which can’t ask for any information more than once. Citizens as well as residents can access their data online. They can also see which official viewed their data and even seek an explanation. Viewing someone’s data is illegal and punishable with a jail sentence.

Paperless cabinet

There has been talk of cabinet meetings going paperless under the Modi government, Estonia has been doing it for 15 years now.

Ministers discuss issues over internet and offer their views. All documents are checked online. For cabinet to take a decision, not all have to be at one place. Documents can be signed digitally.

“Before the reform, the meetings lasted around three hours but it doesn’t take more than 30 minutes now,” said former minister Saks.

E-cabinet not only saves time but ensures transparency. All the preparatory documents are also available online.

The writer was in Estonia on the invitation of Baltic Film and Media School and the Estonian ministry of foreign affairs.

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