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How Estonia built a digital first government

From filing taxes to accessing medical records to voting, 99 percent of all government services in Estonia are available online. Accessed at the state portal using an ID card and a pin code, the former Soviet nation is the first in the world to declare the internet a social right. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports on how Estonia protects itself from cyberattacks.

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  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Winters in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, can be long and cold. But it's hardly a place frozen in time. In fact, in less than 30 years, Estonia has gone from being an impoverished member of the Soviet Union to one of the most technically advanced countries in the world. It's the first country to declare the internet a social right. The government claims high-speed broadband covers 88% percent of the country and 99% of its services are easily accessible online.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    A country where you can do your taxes in three minutes. Where you can vote online from anywhere in the world and it's still secure and safe.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Anna Piperal is managing director of Estonia's E-Showroom which promotes the country's digital society to the world.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    So this is your ID card?

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    Yes, it's actually a plastic card with my unique ID number in it and a chip.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    The key to it all? One card. It's a digital ID with encrypted files used together with a pin code. 94% of Estonians have a digital ID like this one.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    First of all I have to plug in my ID card in order to log into the state portal which will be a one stop shop for different services.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Virtually everything, she says, can be done online. Including accessing medical records.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    In 2008 we obliged hospitals to digitize the data and make it available to the patients.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Taxes too are done online. The government fills in all the forms with information as reported to it. Taxpayers just need to review and approve. Two clicks, and within three minutes in most cases, taxes are done!

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    My last time to the bank was like 4 years ago. I don't miss the guys.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    So banking, health care, voting? All done digitally.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    Yes. It's also energy companies, telco companies. Buying things online or seeing just your bills or your energy consumption. This is all available with a card.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    And there's no need to ever sign paperwork.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    And now my signature stamp.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Everything is confirmed instantly using your ID card and pin code to create what amounts to a "digital" signature. It's a series of numbers with a timestamp. Estonia is serious about cyber security. A main way it protects digital information is with technology called Blockchain. It's a way of decentralizing and authenticating data to prevent hacking. It's most famously used by the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. Estonia is the first country to use it on a national level.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    It just sounds like so many things could go wrong.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    Potentially it could but when the data is correct and you only have correct data in one place and everyone is responsible for keeping their data correct then it's much easier.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    And making life easier is exactly the goal of this e-society. Estonians we talked to say they like and trust it.

  • WOMAN:

    I don't need to remember to remember a lot of numbers or anything so it's easy to use.

  • MAN:

    For me I think it's safe to use this.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    You have faith in the system.

  • MAN:

    Yes.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    At Lift 99, where entrepreneurs can rent office space and network, we met American Yuriy Mikitchenko. He moved from Oregon to Estonia for love, his fiance is Estonian, but he's also quite smitten with how the government encourages business.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Do you think it's easier to do business here than it is in the United States?

  • YURIY MIKITCHENKO:

    Technology, for sure makes it's easier to do business here. I can send an invoice digitally and get a bank transfer immediately. No signing checks. No cutting actual checks. People here laugh at the idea of checks.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    To appreciate how far Estonia has come, it's important to look back to when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union. We got a chance to do just that visiting the repository of Estonia's Museum of Occupations with director Merilin Piipuu.

  • MERILIN PIIPUU:

    But I guess in modern countries you had already better equipment than this one.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Estonia was part of the communist USSR from 1944 to 1991. By the time it gained its freedom about 20 percent of Americans were already using personal computers, but here in Estonia there were virtually no computers.

  • MERILIN PIIPUU:

    Typewriters were the last thing. We didn't have the first computers. And when we talk about connections and you know, mobile phones we didn't know anything about. We still had the basic landlines and even the landlines were always overheard. People were always like, surveillance was the thing.

  • MERILIN PIIPUU:

    Look at the phones from KGB offices. It's really heavy.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    When the country broke away from the USSR, Estonians had to build their new country from scratch. That meant they could take advantage of something that was brand new then, the Internet. Within a few years Estonians jumped from typewriters to the latest web-connected computers.

  • DR. ROBERT KRIMMER:

    They managed to actually have an idea, a vision of how their country should be run.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Dr Robert Krimmer is a Professor in the School of Business and Governance at the Tallinn University of Technology and an expert on what has come to be know as e-government. He says necessity was the mother of invention in this tiny country.

  • DR. ROBERT KRIMMER:

    There is not enough humans that can do all the jobs and there is just not enough money to pay for all the services if you have to do it the traditional way on paper so Estonia didn't have a choice, right? It decided information technology is the one thing that helps the country organize itself.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    And one of the most ambitious things they "organized" was i-voting in 2005. Citizens can vote online in every election.

  • DR. ROBERT KRIMMER:

    It was this bold decision. We are going to be the first to vote online.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Hearing how much people trust their online government services, one might get the impression that the entire shift to becoming an e-society was a breeze. It wasn't. In fact, Estonia faced a major crisis in 2007 when it became the first country to experience a massive cyber attack which took down Estonia's email, bank, and newspaper servers.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    The state portals, the president's portals, the bank's portals, the newspapers they were jammed, basically. They were not available anymore and this created a lot of panic.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    But who was behind it? It's widely believed to be connected to this Soviet-era statue. In April, 2007 the Estonian government moved it from the center of Tallinn to this military cemetery in the outskirts. Pro-Russian Estonians saw this as an insult. They took part in violent protests at the exact same time the cyber attack overwhelmed the country's servers. Many here thought that was no coincidence.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    And the assumption was that our neighbors were responsible for this.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    You mean Russia?

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    Yes.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    While Piperal acknowledges it has never been confirmed that the Russians were behind the attack, she suspects they were aiming to undermine Estonians' trust in their government. Instead the country came together. The government went public describing the attack and the steps it was taking to thwart it. The next year the Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, a multi-nationally funded think tank, opened in Tallinn. Here they train military and civilian experts from 21 countries how to protect against cyber-attacks on government systems, banks, and utilities. Merle Maigre, its director, says the crisis actually increased people's trust in the government.

  • MERLE MAIGRE:

    Estonia underwent this early wake-up call finding a way to find solutions to the situation built up people's trust in digital services as such.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    We can't stop the cyber-attacks. It's like, the number is increasing, but what we can is detect them as soon as possible, meaning the next second, so we can prevent the bigger damage.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    As yet another line of defense against cyber-attack, the country is creating a backup system, what they call "digital embassies" in which Estonia stores a backup copy of all its digital assets in another country. The first one was established in Luxembourg last June.

  • ANNA PIPERAL:

    We would like a bigger kind of network of digital embassies where we can put our data and, of course, using blockchain with it for integrity purposes so if anything happens to Estonia, if anyone attacks Estonia the government will not lose any data or control over data, and they could service people even if we are not in the country.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    And the next step for this small country is to expand beyond its borders by offering what it calls E-residency to everyone in the world. It's a program meant to attract entrepreneurs. Pay a fee of about 120 dollars, pass a background check, and Estonia issues you a digital ID which you can use to establish a company in Estonia making it easier to access the EU market.

  • ARNAUD CASTAIGNET:

    You can create a legitimate European business without actually coming to Estonia nor coming to the EU within a few hours and you have access to all the e-services from Estonia.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Castaignet says every dollar invested by the government setting up e-residency generates 100 dollars for Estonian companies.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    How many people have signed up so far?

  • ARNAUD CASTAIGNET:

    Right now we have more than 30,000 e-residents coming from 140 countries around the world.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    How big do you want this thing to get? What's the limit?

  • ARNAUD CASTAIGNET:

    Sky's the limit, you know.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Of course, there are limits. But for Anna Piperal, the country's e-Ambassador, the answer is clear. Estonia has a lot to teach the world about building a digital society.

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