Why Estonia's eID was just the beginning

In this extract from our in-depth, multimedia look at the Baltic nation, we look at the beginnings of its transformation to a world leader in eGovernment
First published on July 09, 2015

Like millions of other couples around the world, Kadri and Artur met in college. In the 10 years since, they have traveled, studied and worked in a number of countries. And like millions of others, they moved back to their home country, Estonia, when their daughter was born. But when little Berta arrived in August 2014, it became clear to Kadri and Artur that Estonia was very different from everywhere else they'd lived.

"I logged on to the state web portal and we registered the birth of our daughter there," says Kadri. "It was where we officially named her. We filed the forms for child benefit payments, and then we checked through the web portal to see if the officials had received our forms, looked through them and approved them." For Kadri, it's unimaginable that she should have to use paper and pen to communicate with officials in her country.

Kadri and Artur aren't an exceptional case. All Estonians benefit from the ease and efficiency of eGovernment services - and they simply can't understand why all countries haven't embraced the digital way of life.

One of the first developments was an ID card, which the Estonian government started rolling out in 2002. But these cards weren't simply for presenting to bank tellers or nightclub bouncers as a form of identification. They also had small chips in them that opened up a whole new virtual world.

The Estonian eID card is part of the country's public key infrastructure (PKI), allowing citizens to use secure services online. It is secure and easy to use - all people needed is a card reader, and most Estonian computers come with one built in.

There's also now a Digi-ID, which is a secondary eID card for frequent users that can only be used online, rather than in person.

Digital signature
A complementary time-saving technology was also introduced in 2002: digital signature. This development meant that a document signed digitally had the same legal validity as a paper document signed the old-fashioned way. Now, Estonians had a secure and easy way to validate government documents, commercial agreements, bank transfers and many other documents digitally. No more wasting reams of paper or traveling to an office to physically sign a contract.

And Estonians have clearly realized its advantages: since its introduction, digital signature has been used more than 200 million times.

Mobile ID
In 2007 came Mobile ID - a response to the slow but sure move from desktop to mobile computing. Mobile ID uses the same PKI as the eID card, but the data is stored on a secure SIM card in the phone. When a person logs in to an eService using Mobile ID, that website or app routes the authentication via the mobile network to the person's phone, where they are prompted for their PIN.

So far, so easy. Why aren't we all using these kinds of eServices? Karoli Hindriks, CEO of Estonian startup Jobbatical, acknowledges that it's far easier to introduce new technologies in a small country than in a large one. You need to convince fewer people that the new system works. "But the other thing is the mindset," she adds. "So I think it's the combination of a small country, historical details and the fact that we are open to change as a nation."

But with larger countries from the Netherlands to Korea having recognized the potential of eGovernment, this technology is within reach of every country, no matter what its size.

This is an edited extract from our full multimedia look at eGovernment pioneer Estonia. To learn more about how its technological innovations benefit both citizen and country, check out the microsite.

Download the related white paper here.

TAGGED IN estonia; egovernment; eid; mobile id; digital signature