Wired had a powerful story about a social credit experiment in China that combines data from the equivalent of Facebook, Amazon and LinkedIn to create an Orwellian credit score. It made me wonder about the potential impact of governments armed with the power to nudge citizens based on massive amounts of data about them. As I found myself worrying about the effects of such power, I took heart in a fantastic New Yorker article about E-Estonia.
If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. And, if you are out of time, below are my favorite excerpts.
E-Estonia is the most ambitious project in technological statecraft today, for it includes all members of the government, and alters citizens’ daily lives. The normal services that government is involved with—legislation, voting, education, justice, health care, banking, taxes, policing, and so on—have been digitally linked across one platform, wiring up the nation.
Today, citizens can vote from their laptops and challenge parking tickets from home. They do so through the “once only” policy, which dictates that no single piece of information should be entered twice. Instead of having to “prepare” a loan application, applicants have their data—income, debt, savings—pulled from elsewhere in the system. There’s nothing to fill out in doctors’ waiting rooms, because physicians can access their patients’ medical histories. Estonia’s system is keyed to a chip-I.D. card that reduces typically onerous, integrative processes—such as doing taxes—to quick work. “If a couple in love would like to marry, they still have to visit the government location and express their will,” Andrus Kaarelson, a director at the Estonian Information Systems Authority, says. But, apart from transfers of physical property, such as buying a house, all bureaucratic processes can be done online.
Digitizing processes reportedly saves the state two per cent of its G.D.P. a year in salaries and expenses. Since that’s the same amount it pays to meet the nato threshold for protection (Estonia—which has a notably vexed relationship with Russia—has a comparatively small military), its former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves liked to joke that the country got its national security for free.
In 2014, the government launched a digital “residency” program, which allows logged-in foreigners to partake of some Estonian services, such as banking, as if they were living in the country. Other measures encourage international startups to put down virtual roots; Estonia has the lowest business-tax rates in the European Union, and has become known for liberal regulations around tech research. It is legal to test Level 3 driverless cars (in which a human driver can take control) on all Estonian roads, and the country is planning ahead for Level 5 (cars that take off on their own). “We believe that innovation happens anyway,” Viljar Lubi, Estonia’s deputy secretary for economic development, says. “If we close ourselves off, the innovation happens somewhere else.”
She pulled out her I.D. card; slid it into her laptop, which, like the walls of the room, was faced with blond wood; and typed in her secret code, one of two that went with her I.D. The other code issues her digital signature—a seal that, Estonians point out, is much harder to forge than a scribble.
Data aren’t centrally held, thus reducing the chance of Equifax-level breaches. Instead, the government’s data platform, X-Road, links individual servers through end-to-end encrypted pathways, letting information live locally. Your dentist’s practice holds its own data; so does your high school and your bank. When a user requests a piece of information, it is delivered like a boat crossing a canal via locks. (APIs)
Toomas Ilves, Estonia’s former President and a longtime driver of its digitization efforts, is currently a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford, and says he was shocked at how retrograde U.S. bureaucracy seems even in the heart of Silicon Valley. “It’s like the nineteen-fifties—I had to provide an electrical bill to prove I live here!” he exclaimed. “You can get an iPhone X, but, if you have to register your car, forget it.” (All too true)
“I’ll show you a digital health record,” she said, to explain. “A doctor from here”—a file from one clinic—“can see the research that this doctor”—she pointed to another—“does.” She’d locked a third record, from a female-medicine practice, so that no other doctor would be able to see it. A tenet of the Estonian system is that an individual owns all information recorded about him or her. Every time a doctor (or a border guard, a police officer, a banker, or a minister) glances at any of Piperal’s secure data online, that look is recorded and reported. Peeping at another person’s secure data for no reason is a criminal offense. “In Estonia, we don’t have Big Brother; we have Little Brother,” a local told me. “You can tell him what to do and maybe also beat him up.”
Traffic stops are illegal in the absence of a moving violation, because officers acquire records from a license-plate scan. Polling-place intimidation is a non-issue if people can vote—and then change their votes, up to the deadline—at home, online. And heat is taken off immigration because, in a borderless society, a resident need not even have visited Estonia in order to work and pay taxes under its dominion.
“If countries are competing not only on physical talent moving to their country but also on how to get the best virtual talent connected to their country, it becomes a disruption like the one we have seen in the music industry,” he said. “And it’s basically a zero-cost project, because we already have this infrastructure for our own people.”
In a garage where unused ambulances were parked, he took an iPad Mini from the pocket of his white coat, and opened an “e-ambulance” app, which Estonian paramedics began using in 2015. “This system had some childhood diseases,” Popov said, tapping his screen. “But now I can say that it works well.”
E-ambulance is keyed onto X-Road, and allows paramedics to access patients’ medical records, meaning that the team that arrives for your chest pains will have access to your latest cardiology report and E.C.G. Since 2011, the hospital has also run a telemedicine system—doctoring at a distance—originally for three islands off its coast. There were few medical experts on the islands, so the E.M.S. accepted volunteer paramedics. “Some of them are hotel administrators, some of them are teachers,” Popov said. At a command center at the hospital in Tallinn, a doctor reads data remotely.
The system also scans for drug interactions, so if your otolaryngologist prescribes something that clashes with the pills your cardiologist told you to take, the computer will put up a red flag.
In what may have been the seminal insight of twenty-first-century Estonia, Martens realized that whoever offered the most ubiquitous and secure platform would run the country’s digital future—and that it should be an elected leadership, not profit-seeking Big Tech.
The backbone of Estonia’s digital security is a blockchain technology called K.S.I.
“If Russia comes—not when—and if our systems shut down, we will have copies,” Piret Hirv, a ministerial adviser, told me. In the event of a sudden invasion, Estonia’s elected leaders might scatter as necessary. Then, from cars leaving the capital, from hotel rooms, from seat 3A at thirty thousand feet, they will open their laptops, log into Luxembourg, and—with digital signatures to execute orders and a suite of tamper-resistant services linking global citizens to their government—continue running their country, with no interruption, from the cloud.
“Our citizens will be global soon,” she said. “We have to fly like bees from flower to flower to gather those taxes from citizens working in the morning in France, in the evening in the U.K., living half a year in Estonia and then going to Australia.”
“The idea that an algorithm can buy and sell services on your behalf is a conceptual upgrade.”
He lit several cigarettes, and talked excitedly of “building a digital society.” It struck me then how long it had been since anyone in America had spoken of society-building of any kind. It was as if, in the nineties, Estonia and the U.S. had approached a fork in the road to a digital future, and the U.S. had taken one path—personalization, anonymity, information privatization, and competitive efficiency—while Estonia had taken the other. Two decades on, these roads have led to distinct places, not just in digital culture but in public life as well.
Kaevats told me it irked him that so many Westerners saw his country as a tech haven. He thought they were missing the point. “This enthusiasm and optimism around technology is like a value of its own,” he complained. “This gadgetry that I’ve been ranting about? This is not important.” He threw up his hands, scattering ash. “It’s about the mind-set. It’s about the culture. It’s about the human relations—what it enables us to do.”