The Estonian model: A digital revolution within the European Union

, by Alexandre Weber, Translated by Sarah Robinson

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English] [français]

The Estonian model: A digital revolution within the European Union
CC Flickr / EU2017EE Estonian Presidency

On July 1st 2017, Estonia took over the presidency of the EU, which will last for the next six months. Declaring its interest in digital technology and its ambition to accelerate the digitalization of the whole of the EU, Estonia wants to extend its free and innovative model to the other countries in the European ‘club.’ But is this really possible? And what is really revolutionary about the system it is proposing?

A country at the cutting edge of the digital world

At first glance Estonia doesn’t look like much. A small Baltic country of 1.3 million inhabitants, growing at the reasonable rate of 1.6% and with an unemployment rate of 6.8% (according to 2016 statistics), Estonia joined the Union in 2004 and the Eurozone in 2011. But when you look a little closer it becomes clear that Estonia is ahead - indeed far ahead - of many European and global countries in the digital and environmental scene.

The digital services offered by the country to its citizens are wide-reaching. To claim that EU countries are not far off this model is perhaps slightly too ambitious at this point, but the prospect of one day having this kind of facilities and speed in almost all administrative sectors and daily services has something gratifying about it.

When you look deeper into the subject, you become aware of the reality of the digital and environmental revolution, and it makes you want to join in. This revolution is all the more surprising given that 30 years ago Estonia was part of the Soviet Union. In little time they have accomplished the feat of moving from an ‘all paper’ administration to an ‘all digital’ administration, and all that while beginning the remediation of the country’s green spaces, which form 45% of its territory.

The cornerstone of the Estonian digital system is the electronic ID card. Introduced in 2002, it is used today by 52% of the population and has acquired more and more practical features over time. The Estonians can vote with it, pay their taxes and bills online with it, look at their bank and health details on the web, see their children’s report cards, have their medical prescriptions on hand and even pay the parking meter.

This card is the intermediary between Estonia’s citizens and its digital system. Moreover, it also serves as a standard national identity card for traveling within the EU for example, as a social security card, and a prepaid travel card. To cap it all, Estonian citizens don’t even need their card to access all its features, as everything is accessible via their mobile phone. In short, even their digital technology has been digitalized.

How does it work? The computers are equipped with a card reader or an extension (external port) where the user can connect their electronic card to their computer and thereby be recognized by the online system. Thanks to the card scanning the citizen has access to all the features online.

E-School, E-Police, E-Prescription, Digital Signature…digital servicing for the day to day

E-School: The digitalization also applies to education. But this system goes beyond the students’ use of tablets or computers, affecting everyone involved in the education system. An area is dedicated to the teachers and supervising staff where they can enter their marks and homework, send messages to parents or to their classes, and evaluate their students’ behaviour. This area is also available to parents who can follow the development of their children’s education.

As for the students, they have access to their marks and homework, but also have an online portfolio where they can store their work. All this data is collected by the local administration into a record of the day-to-day numbers and statistics. The login details for this area are included in the users’ E-cards. It is accessed via a web portal, similar to an intranet.

E-Police: The police benefit from specific tools that facilitate their interventions and improve the safety of Estonians, especially on the road. A special database for driving licenses allows them to check their validity, previous offenses, and the number plate, and law enforcement agencies can access it from their vehicles in order to streamline arrests and inspections.

Moreover, the country is making an effort to create a state-of-the-art digital defence system to protect all transactions and private information, to prevent and block any potential ‘cyber attacks’ which the country could be the target of, as was the case in 2007 after a Russian attack. The capital Tallinn is also the site a NATO Cyber Defence Centre.

E-Prescription: Treatment forms and pharmacy waiting times are a thing of the past, hindrances in the doctor’s office for prescription renewals are fewer, and all that thanks to digitalization. Your medical results, health information, appointments, prescriptions, all of it is on the web. You connect in the same way as for the E-School: with the electronic card.

What is effective about this type of system is that it is beneficial for all those concerned. In this specific case, it is not only beneficial for the patients but also for the doctors who can process prescription renewal requests without making their patients come into the doctor’s office to fill out a form. Once the request is accepted, the pharmacy will just have to scan the patient’s electronic card to know what medicine they require. The doctor-patient-pharmacist relationship has never been so smooth-running.

This is just a small portion of everything that can be done with this digital system. Paying your bills, including taxes, electronically signing contracts with foreign partners, consulting the law, filing a complaint. Even voting can be done online, but this topic would be worth an article unto itself.

The Estonian population has long been sensitized to all these practices. If you were to introduce such a comprehensive and diversified programme in France it is doubtful that it would be met with any popular enthusiasm. However, these types of innovations should be given more media coverage to make people realize what digitalization can bring to administrations, famous for their slowness in many a country, to our daily life but also to the environment.

Emmanuel Macron is visibly very attached to of the idea of digitalization, but will his plan be able to promote this attitude among French people? One might well doubt it, as the task seems immense. However, merely bringing attention to what is possible is a big step forward. We have to put an end to the clichés surrounding digitalization. It doesn’t destroy employment but creates it (30% of Estonians are employed in this industry), and it promotes the creation of companies and start-ups.

What about cyber security?

Is digital technology really safe? The idea of a centralized European database may put off more than one person. A cybersecurity specialist, who is critical of all digital technology and who wants to remain anonymous, gives us his opinion on cybersecurity and its dangers:

‘Cyber security involves constructing one or several firewalls to protect databases, internal networks or company systems. It’s good in theory. In practice, no matter how many firewalls are put in place, there will always be one or several ways around it. The technique of piling firewalls one on top of the other is sometimes more counterproductive than effective as it creates new loopholes in the junctures between the different firewalls. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and with firewalls, it’s even worse.

Furthermore, whatever the security system is, it just takes ONE person breaching it ONCE by accident, and they are inside. And once the intruder is inside a database there is no solution for ejecting them, apart from completely deleting the data. To sum up, when it comes to cybersecurity we can repel a million cyber attacks, but if attack number 1,000,001 gets past the defenses, it’s all over.

The idea of the current system of distribution is that the government does not have access to all private information without systematic and concerted effort. If we centralize everything, one sole person will hold the keys to every aspect life of every citizen. And it’s terrifying, a Big Brother 2.0.’

Has he gone too far? Is the security of such a system so precarious and fragile? On 15th July Estonia decided to relocate its protected servers to the first ‘e-embassy’ in Luxembourg, and it’s there that we can find the answer to our worries. Luxembourg offers a ’Tier 4’ level of security, which is by far the highest server security level possible. And this system is designed to withstand external attacks AS WELL as crashes and other eventualities.

When will the rest of the EU follow suit?

Estonia has clearly stated that the digital revolution was one of its objectives in its Presidency of the Council of the EU. The country’s room for maneuver here is doubtful, or rather the level of influence it will have on EU directives. Malta’s presidency did not bring about much. And yet Estonia seems to be taking its role to heart in the first days of its term of office.

Apart from talking about the benefits of the ‘all-digital solution’, the country is very attached to the idea of a Europe of Defence. It is proposing, for example, the sharing of data between European agencies so as to have a joint defense database against terrorism and cyberterrorism.

Digital advisor to the government Valdek Laur points towards the problems a position without digital technology poses to entrepreneurs:

‘We hope that the principles of the openness of the single market will spread to the digital world. But for that, the member states have to agree. Let’s take a simple example: when an accounting firm wishes to offer online services in other member states, it encounters some difficulties. Many states require the financial records to correspond to the territory of the country in question. The business owner then has to register his domain name in the country where he is intending to operate - the use of the domain name .eu is not enough. This can be expensive for young start-ups and hinders their activities in the European Economic Area.’

This is, therefore, an actual project, and will perhaps be successful in accelerating the EU’s development in this sector. Let’s not forget that if Skype comes from Estonia then many talented entrepreneurs must be hidden in Europe, and the EU has a duty to facilitate their development and encourage their ambitions.

What could trouble the EU is the safety aspect that such a commitment entails. As the Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas reminds us, ‘Freedom of data circulation is a necessary condition of the digital single market. […] We have to improve trust and security. That’s why we also have to concentrate on the cybersecurity issues.’

Where does France stand in this? France is often at the leading edge of environmental and technological development in Europe but could significantly fall behind in the digital sector if the government does not make an effort to sensitize the population and take the necessary measures. On 4th July the Prime Minister announced in his keynote address that France’s digital transition would be quick for the French administration - the project being for almost all public services to be carried out online by 2022 – taking the Estonian model by way of example. Let’s hope he delivers on his commitments.

This article was first published by Isegoria, the student association of the Audencia Business School in Nantes.

Link to the original article (in French): here

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