e-Estonia: What is all the fuss about?

99 percent of government services are available digitally in Estonia, and that's only because the government wants citizens to be physically present at their wedding and view the house they're buying.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Estonia is often cited as the ultimate benchmark for how citizens should engage with government, with 99 percent of services available digitally.

The population of Estonia is 1.3 million; Australia has around 25 million, the United States 326 million, and China 1.38 billion. But as Estonia's global affairs director Sandra Särav said, any company would rather deliver services to 25 million than 1 million, so it's not just the country's size that has allowed a digital government.

Estonia is not a developing country, either, with IT accounting for 7 percent of its GDP and agriculture less than 1 percent. But it is a young country.

Estonia regained its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Särav told the Technology in Government conference in Canberra last week that the country was showered with help from neighbours such as Finland, which offered up old computer systems and such to rebuild. Instead, the country decided to start from scratch.

Särav said Estonians trusted their newly elected government -- and it's here that the success of digitisation has its roots, she said. With government changing so frequently in Australia, even with internal party leadership spills, it is hard not to draw distinctions between that and government IT projects running less than smoothly.

"The government decided it was going to do something differently, working with the private sector in shaping the former Soviet Union country to be a digital nation," she said. "In every country, you have people that hate their government, but we've trusted them with the digitisation process."

Estonia also views legislation as an enabler, according to Särav.

Government digitisation started in the '90s, and by the year 2000, its first digital service was served up to citizens.

Estonia first introduced e-tax declaration, offering a better way of doing taxes that the citizen was keen to adopt. And that was the idea: Introducing a better way of performing something that was burdensome, rather than digital for digital's sake.

Currently, it takes around three minutes to take care of taxes in Estonia. The country is now moving to full automation, where companies don't actually need to declare tax at all, as the information -- such as salary payments -- is automatically sent off to the government.

"The government would probably know when the company would go into bankruptcy before they did," she said of the economic oversight such automation could provide.

In 2018, there are only three things you cannot do online with the government in Estonia: Get married, get divorced, and buy real estate.

"These three things are the high-risk transactions for every citizen," she explained.

Since the concept was introduced in 2002, 98 percent of Estonians own an ID card, which is the key to using all the digital services and getting the most out of them. In Estonia, when a person is born, they're assigned a personal ID code -- it's compulsory to have one.

"We basically copy-pasted this from Finland; however, we made it work," Särav said. "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."

For further context, there is no data kept on the Estonian ID card. It's a PKI system, whereby users authenticate themselves with PIN one and seal the deal with PIN two. There's a public key and a private key on the microchip, but no data.

This is how citizens access all of the services.

"One of the principles in enabling this is the once-only principle -- any time you submit any type of data to the government, they shouldn't ask for this data again," Särav explained.

"The government knows my name, where I was born, which school I went to, so if I apply for university, get a job, give birth to a child, they don't need to ask the previous information about me again.

"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."

Another principle is called digital by default, which means the introduction of any new service is to be done digitally.

In Estonia, if an individual wants to register a new place of residence, authentication is performed using the digital ID, and the individual can update their information in less than two minutes.

A digital service to the Estonian government is a fully digital end-to-end service with no phone calls, office visits, or physical paperwork.

Another element Särav pointed to as helping with the success of the concept of a digital government is truth by design; individuals own their own data, companies own their own data, and the choice is left to them to determine who else gets their hands on it.

Logging in to Estonia.ee allows the individual to see who is accessing their 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," she said. "Only if you have granted them access -- it's always consent-based."

In Estonia, you can also open a business in 18 minutes -- it holds the world record for this -- with the information pre-filled as the government has a single view of the individual.

These services are not only open to Estonians, however. In December 2014, the country opened up its digital services to the world, meaning anyone can become an e-resident of Estonia. Since 2014, more than 40,000 people from 150 different countries have been granted Estonian e-residency. They have established over 6,000 companies in Estonia.

The idea is to have 10 million e-Estonians by 2025.

When it comes to accessing data on an individual, Särav said Estonia actually came up with the solution by accident, landing with a data exchange layer known as X-roads.

"In 2001, we were too poor to afford a centralised database, so we decided we needed to connect different databases of public and private service providers and make them talk to each other," she continued. "Now other countries realise this is the safest way to go; you shouldn't have a centralised database, as it's very vulnerable."

X-roads is open source, with third parties able to connect their database to it. When there's a citizen trying to use a service, they simply authenticate using their ID card. If the service requires any information from another database, it pulls in all info required.

"We save with X-roads more than 800 working years annually," Särav said.

"By using digital signatures, we save 2 percent of our TDP annually -- this is exactly the same amount of money we have to spend on NATO military expenditure. Estonians like to joke we get our military for free."

X-roads has been exported internationally, and Estonia and Finland actually engage in cross-border online data sharing.

With the rollout of Australia's My Health Record not exactly going smoothly, Särav took the opportunity to share how Estonia does it.

She said that with 97 percent of health information digitised, the country can offer services such as e-ambulance, which sees an individual and their location known as soon as they dial the 112 emergency phone number.

"They can see from my personal ID code that this is me ... they have full access to my medical history and can bring treatment with them," she said.

Medical respondents can also book rooms at hospitals before even reaching the individual. 99 percent of prescriptions handed out in Estonia are also digital.

As a gift to celebrate the country's 100th birthday, 100,000 citizens are donating their genomic data to the government.

"We're going to analyse the genomic data of those 100,000 people -- in a couple of years, it should be 400,000, which is already one third of the Estonian population -- and this means that for me as an individual, I can see the potential threats to my health, but the states can map the entire genome data of the country, basically," Särav said.

"And as we move on to deploying AI in the public sector, probably we're going to use AI in assisting doctors in determining this personalised medicine as well."

Not everyone is tech savvy in Estonia, but the ease of use of the tech services, mixed with the IT education offered, means citizens can use the basic stuff, Särav said.

IT skills are taught from kindergarten; kids aged seven can already code their own games.

IT classes are compulsory and by 2020, there will be digital-only material in classes, with the exception of the hands-on creative elements. There's also a re-skilling program for post-graduates to learn more tech-related skills, and gain an internship at IT firms.

Still on education, 85 percent of schools are connected to e-school, which has all of the grades stored online for each student. Students can see their data, parents can see their child's data, and teachers can see all of their students.

In 2007, Estonia found itself in a cyber war with Russia.

"After this, we said we need to cooperate internationally when it comes to cybersecurity ... so we convinced NATO to launch their cyber defence centre of excellence to Tallinn," she said.

The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) was opened in 2008, and currently boasts not only EU member states, but Australia as well.

Estonia is also the first country to open a data embassy, keeping the important data stored in Luxembourg -- in Estonian sovereign territory -- as a safety net.

"Data is going to be shared in near real time, so if there's going to be another attack, cyber or physical, we can just take our 1.3 million people, move them to a farmhouse in Australia, and still function as a country," Särav joked.

A lot of this is owed to blockchain, she said.

"In 2008, after the attacks we had, there was a company in Estonia that started working on a technology that would secure data blocks. After a few years, when blockchain became a thing, they realised that's what they were doing," Särav explained.

"Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI) blockchain. We don't keep the data in the blockchain, but we secure our data logs with the blockchain.

"We're securing the health data with KSI blockchain."


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