How Estonia Is Building the Future That We All Need

Walter Guevara
Nov 27, 2020 · 8 min read
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We are still at a 50/50 split as to whether technology will help to alleviate us from our physically demanding jobs or whether it will take over all electronics and rid us of our biological life. Some countries aren’t waiting around for machines to make the move first.

Estonia, or should I say, e-Estonia is betting that technology is here to help us live more fulfilling lives and they are embracing a fully connected and fully digital society in which every citizen is plugged into the network from birth and where you can vote with the touch of a button. Unlike the Matrix however, citizens are aware of the fact and they seem to be working with it and not fighting it.

How is Estonia tackling this human and technological merge? In surprisingly advanced ways that most other countries are still decades away from implementing. And that’s because Estonia has been working on this since 1994.

Digital ID

Every citizen of e-Estonia is assigned a digital ID, much like US citizens receive a Social Security Number. The main difference? It is a public ID which means you don’t have to whisper it into the phone whenever you make a call to your bank.

This ID is essentially what ties you to your citizenship of Estonia, since 99% of state services are currently online. And best of all, this ID applies to you wherever you are located. In contrast for example, in the United States a state issued ID in California might not be valid for certain services in say Oregon. We also typically require multiple forms of identification in America in order to fulfill various tasks.

The Estonian ID-Card can be used to generate digital signatures as well and offers 384-bit ECC public key encryption to protect its citizens privacy.

So what can this ID conjure for you, if you were a recipient? The list includes:

  • National health services identification
  • Bank account login access
  • Digital signatures
  • i-Voting
  • e-Prescriptions
  • Legal travel ID for Estonian citizens traveling within the EU

As an optional method, Estonian citizens can also opt for a mobile-id, which allows for identification directly from their mobile phones using a specialized SIM card that they must request.

This mobile-id version can be used to log in to government services when browsing directly through the phone.

There is some contention as to whether Estonia’s ID system is overly invasive to the populace since it does tie the user to essentially every aspect of their city life.

In Estonia’s defense, I have to say that there are ID’s are not designed for anonymity, hence their name. The only anonymous and private identification system, is the one that doesn’t work at doing its fundamental job.

X-Road

Let’s go deeper into that, since much of it sounded like tech jargon, and that’s because it is.

One of the biggest challenges that any country faces as its population grows, is in keeping track of data. New driver’s licenses get printed daily, new prescriptions get approved sometimes from multiple doctors, new people are born and named. Sometimes there are typos and other times people get assigned the wrong items.

Currently, our system is a fractured mess. The DMV network has no connection to the Medical network and even less connection to the birth registrar.

In Estonia, that’s where X-Road comes in to play. It is the network in which thousands of services can send and share data with each other. Every transaction on the data is fully verified, authenticated and logged and each citizen is allowed to see how their data is being used.

A part of the X-Road is the countries population registry, which is the states database housing basic information from each citizen. This include name, date of birth, residency and languages spoken. If the citizen were filling out a form online, as an example, their up to date information would be populated from the register through the X-Road based on their digital ID.

Overall, this means less paperwork and verification on the part of the citizens. But it also means more precise, accurate and up to date data across the board for any service that a person may be using.

The country of Estonia estimates that 844 years of working time per year is saved thanks in part to this interconnected network.

One of the most important aspects of this digital secure network is the idea of federation. Federation is a one to one relationship between two completely different ecosystems. This means that two different countries can publish and share data between both of their internal networks through a secure and fully trackable way.

In 2018, the official federation between Estonia and Finland was established.

e-residents

The official Estonian government sites market the e-residency to anyone from startup founders looking to base themselves out of Estonia as well as to freelancers who are seeking to work in new markets.

The benefits of an e-residency are actually quite notable. The main one being that you don’t have to physically be an EU location in order to officially conduct business in that region.

There are also challenges that come with opening up a market in the EU, particularly with payment processing and taxation. This can be alleviated by being an official e-resident of an EU state.

And because every e-resident receives an official digital ID card, this means that they can also benefit from the highly connected service based network and digital signature framework.

If interested in more information on how to become an Estonian e-resident you can check out more info on their official site here.

e-voting

But Estonia has had online voting since 2005. Roughly 44% of Estonians currently use i-voting.

This is possible because of everything that I’ve mentioned so far in this post. Votes are authenticated through the digital ID system and through the X-Road network. This means that every vote is strictly accounted for, logged and tracked. No hanging-chad funny business here.

The process is as follows. During a pre-designated period of time, each voter logs into a secure system using their digital ID and they can cast their ballot. To ensure anonymity, the voters identity is removed right before it reaches the National Electoral Commission where it is counted. And thus making the whole process anonymous.

Another benefit, is that votes can be changed during the voting period without any concern. Each new vote for a single user, will override their previous vote until the official window of time ends.

Estonian officials estimate that over 11,000 working days of cumulative time was saved in the last Estonian elections thanks to digital voting.

Robotics

But we’re still afraid of the concept. Robots have limbs. We have limbs. Robots can walk. We can walk. So the only valid assumption is that the robots will apply for our jobs and if their personality is better, take our jobs.

Estonia has robots. And they don’t just build cars mindlessly like ours do. They do other things that our cities need. Like deliver the mail and deliver food door to door. It’s an odd sight at first, as you realize that there are multiple rectangular droids driving through the snow on route to its next location.

It’s even more odd to see how the citizens don’t seem to notice anymore as they go on with their day to day lives. Some even dig the tiny robots out of snowy trenches whenever they get stuck.

To Estonian’s, the idea isn’t to replace people with robots, but more to familiarize the citizens with how robots can work within the confines of a city to help alleviate some of the more trivial tasks.

This is something that we are experimenting with as well here in the US. We also have food delivery robots in certain cities getting beta tested and sometimes broken into. People snap photos and awe at it’s 4MPH spinning treads.

We are also on the verge of drone delivery robots, assuming that we can get the right FAA approval and designated flight zones in place.

Estonia has a slight lead in this department though, and that again comes back to the nation-wide connectivity network in which eventually, you can have the drones and robots communicating and orchestrating routes among themselves.

Artificial Intelligence

That might sound vague. And that’s because it kind of is. AI encompasses a general slew of concepts far beyond just a PC yelling at you, like many of us envision.

AI can involve anything from the ways that cars navigate through our cities to how crops are grown to feed the growing populace. But more so than just the physical acts themselves, AI involves the legislation around these devices.

For example, who is to blame when a driverless car brakes abruptly to prevent an accident, but then causes some form of damage to its passenger? Is it the car manufacturer, the software developers or the government body that approved the vehicle in the first place?

Do robot delivery bots have the right of way when crossing a stop sign? We want to say ‘yes’, but until it’s on paper, it kind of sits in a gray zone.

These questions are at the heart of Estonia’s endless expansion into the digital domain. And while most of the world may still be decades away from where Estonia is today, it is nice to get a glimpse of our potential more highly connected futures that are waiting for us, but only once we start to allow it into our lives.

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Walter Guevara

Written by

Sr. Programmer. Coding blogger. Former startup CTO. Los Angeles native. Future sci-fi author. www.thatsoftwaredude.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +754K people. Follow to join our community.

Walter Guevara

Written by

Sr. Programmer. Coding blogger. Former startup CTO. Los Angeles native. Future sci-fi author. www.thatsoftwaredude.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +754K people. Follow to join our community.

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