What’s just getting going in Germany has long been a feature of everyday life in Estonia: the digital identity. This allows Estonians to vote, submit their tax returns or start a business – easily and online. Over the last 20 years, all parts of daily life in Estonia have been digitalised. Hence the name: e-Estonia. Let’s take a look at the most digitally advanced society in the world and the infrastructure it’s based on.
It starts with the digital identity
Back in 2002, Estonia laid the foundation for its rollout of digital services by establishing the e-identity. Clearly, to be able to vote online or call up medical records online, it must first be possible to identify people unequivocally. To achieve this, every Estonian citizen is issued with an 11-digit personal identification number. In addition to the physical ID card with online functions via a card reader, they can also use a mobile-ID. This is linked to their telephone SIM card. A Smart-ID app solution has been available since 2017.
Thanks to the digital identities, in Estonia in-person visits to authorities are a thing of the past, as 99% of all services are offered online. The eesti.ee portal allows citizens to, for example, change their address or register a numberplate. Signatures on paper are rarely required. So, for example, a rental agreement can easily be signed online by entering a PIN number. Thanks to the e-identity, Estonians don’t need documents such as a driver’s license or a health insurance card. All this information is linked directly with the personal identification number and the electronic ID card. In many cases the same applies to corporate customer cards.
Estonia started digitalising all its medical records at the start of the 2000s. Patients – and doctors and paramedics too – can access these via an online portal. This not only simplifies changing to a new doctor, but getting the right treatment in an emergency, too. However, patients retain full control of their data. If they do not wish to share certain pieces of information, they can set these to be inaccessible. What’s more, citizens can view who has already accessed their data in a logbook.
The e-prescription will be introduced in Germany in 2022. In Estonia, they’ve had e-prescriptions since 2010. Estonians simply use one of their three identification options to collect medication from the pharmacy. They can then find additional information in an online portal, for example, about how often they need to take their tablets. What’s more, certificates of incapacity can be transmitted directly from the doctor to the citizen’s employer. And thanks to the available health data, epidemics can be detected early on.
In the 2018 PISA Study, Estonia was awarded first place among the European countries. Here, education and digitalisation are closely related to each other. On the one hand, in education much value is placed on the teaching of digital skills. For example, children acquire initial programming and IT skills in junior school. Later on, an average of 10% of students choose to study IT.
On the other hand, the education system itself is digitalised and is administrated across a variety of platforms. One of these allows parents to view their children’s grades or to confirm that they are ill. Increasingly, teaching materials are also being put online.
What other digital services do the Estonians have?
Estonia was the first state in the world to permit autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roads. Since then, they have established two autonomous bus routes. In addition, autonomous robots travel along the pavements, delivering food and packages.
E-residency is another of Estonia’s special features. Anyone can set up a company in Estonia without actually living there themselves. This works thanks to the multitude of e-services which make in-person applications or “analogue” signatures unnecessary.
Technical infrastructure, security and data protection
Naturally, digital identities require special protection. To ensure this, Estonia’s e-identities are based on a public key infrastructure system (PKI). Anyone can use the public key to identify a person. The public key is validated via the PKI. A private key is stored on the ID card which is protected by two PINs. Citizens can use the first PIN to confirm their identity – this prevents anyone finding a lost ID card from accessing someone else’s e-services. The second PIN is used to generate a legally binding digital signature.
To limit the quantities of data handled by digital services and to make citizens’ everyday life easier, information is only transmitted to a single authority once. That authority is then responsible for storing the data. If other authorities require the information, e.g. a citizen’s registered address, they can submit a query via the data exchange platform X-Road. In addition to interoperability, X-Road also ensures security and integrity of the data – because all outgoing data is signed digitally and encrypted. When data arrives in the system, it is authenticated and documented.
Estonia’s system architecture is decentralised. Block chain technology is used to ensure data integrity. The data is not stored in the block chain, just authenticated by it. This prevents the data from being manipulated either externally or internally without being detected. Estonia is also the first country with a data embassy. This refers to a data centre situated in another country which acts as a backup for the most important information.
For the security of its online voting system, the Estonian government relies on white hat hackers and makes the code publicly available. It is also using artificial intelligence for approximately 50 services so far.
Estonia has achieved what many countries can only dream of: creating a digital state which does without a lot of bureaucracy and, at the same time, guarantees security. Here in Germany, we are still far away from this – as a digital identity is only just beginning to be introduced. You can read much more about this in this article. But Estonia is not resting on its laurels: it continues to develop new services. In the years to come, they are planning to extend their proactive services – i.e. the state approaches citizens and offers its services proactively, instead of the other way round. So we’ll be watching what Estonia comes up with in the future with interest.