As part of an ongoing process since Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the government has worked to connect to its citizens through online services. To improve the national economic system and for Estonians to more easily participate in political affairs, the government began providing electronic ID cards and making government services online more accessible. Through their national ID cards, citizens now have access to tax forms, online voting, simple online identification, and digital signatures. To date, over 98% of Estonians have chosen to opt-in.
The national ID, which is unique to each citizen, is fully encrypted and secure. With over 99% of state services accessible online, it also simplifies tasks such as filing taxes or requesting prescriptions online. Accessing the system is made even simpler as the ID card serves as a valid digital signature. Making digital signatures legally binding has saved Estonians almost a week every year by using fewer handwritten signatures. The less time required transporting a document for handwritten signatures means that projects requiring signatures can move along much faster.
With many of the government’s services accessible online, initiatives like the EstWin project have worked to provide equal Internet access to all citizens throughout the country, by setting up public wifi hotspots or by bringing broadband to underserved areas. To this end, almost all citizens between 16 to 44 years of age now have daily access to the Internet.
Estonians can access e-services online through a digital infrastructure called X-Road, which allows for the seamless transfer of data from one state service to another. By providing access to the internet and the state, the Estonian government has created significant opportunities for citizens to improve their lives. Now, these same services are offered to the world through a new e-residency program.
Current Trends in E-Governance and Digital Identity
Estonia has been compared to Silicon Valley due to the number of start-ups in the country. It is particularly interesting because it is the government that has spurred these start-ups by making it easier to establish business and bank accounts online. Estonia has been developing a new program so that people across the world can access these business services online by signing up for the e-residency program.
E-residency allows non-Estonians to apply for the same access to these business services from anywhere in the world. Once approved by the Estonian government, e-residents are provided the same government-approved card to access state services. There have been around 70,000 e-residents since 2015.
Another unique development coming out of Estonia is online voting. It is accessible to the whole population and takes place through a system called i-voting, where a voter uses the digital signature associated with their ID to authorize their electronic ballot. This is then sent to a secure server to be counted, after which ballots become anonymous. As seen in studies, the percentage of voters who use i-voting has increased over time, from 1.9% in 2005 to 24.3% in 2011. Especially in light of the difficulties of in-person voting during the pandemic, i-voting, made possible by the use of electronic IDs, shows the possibilities of making voting more accessible. In addition, i-voting could be used to help combat voter suppression by opening up another form of voting for those who might have unequal access to voting centers within their community or do not have the time to wait in line to vote.
Costs and Cautions of E-governance
Despite these impressive advancements, it is also important to understand how online services are vulnerable to interference. With “67% of Estonians using their ID regularly,” a lot is dependent on keeping this accessibility secure.
Estonia has reportedly suffered “denial of service” attacks from Russian hackers in response to domestic political decisions made in Estonia. These attacks made the Internet very slow or unusable for most Estonians, thus halting many services and activities online for about 24 hours. As a result, NATO established a Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence to develop cyber defense strategies. An example was when the U.S Cyber Command deployed operatives in Estonia to learn more about defending the U.S. elections from foreign hackers.
Another form of vulnerability comes from the process of securely counting and anonymizing the votes of i-voters to ensure free elections. Researchers from the Software Technology and Applications Competence Center concluded that Estonia’s i-voting system was still dealing with different vulnerabilities such as hacking or unsuccessful authorizations of ID cards. There would need to be public knowledge of and confidence in the changes necessary to ensure a secure election process. In turn, Estonia has tried to minimize the vulnerabilities of i-voting and e-services by decentralizing information stored in X-Road. Regardless, providing these ID cards has been a big step in ensuring secure elections and services.
Just the Beginning for Digital Identity
While It is understandable to be excited about the future of e-governance and the innovations Estonia has produced, it is also important to consider what vulnerabilities exist regarding public trust and hackers intending to exploit or disrupt access to the internet. Nevertheless, the creation of electronic ID cards has simplified access to online services and digital authentication, proving Estonia to be an example of the opportunities provided by technology to improve access to government services.