Estonia, the Digital Republic

Estonia, the Digital Republic

Nathan Heller

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.”

Finding the business interests of the rich and powerful—a hefty field of journalism in the United States—takes a moment’s research, because every business connection or investment captured in any record in Estonia becomes searchable public information. (An online tool even lets citizens map webs of connection, follow-the-money style.) 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.

Barack Obama’s face was also on a wall. Obama Rooms are booths for making cell-phone calls, following something he once said about Estonia. (“I should have called the Estonians when we were setting up our health-care Web site.”)

Today, the old fatuities of the nation-state are showing signs of crisis. Formerly imperialist powers have withered into nationalism (as in Brexit) and separatism (Scotland, Catalonia). New powers, such as the Islamic State, have redefined nationhood by ideological acculturation. It is possible to imagine a future in which nationality is determined not so much by where you live as by what you log on to.

She logged on with her own I.D. If she were to glance at any patient’s data, she explained, the access would be tagged to her name, and she would get a call inquiring why it was necessary. 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.

I asked Kaevats what he saw when he looked at the U.S. Two things, he said. First, a technical mess. Data architecture was too centralized. Citizens didn’t control their own data; it was sold, instead, by brokers. Basic security was lax. “For example, I can tell you my I.D. number—I don’t fucking care,” he said. “You have a Social Security number, which is, like, a big secret.” He laughed. “This does not work!” The U.S. had backward notions of protection, he said, and the result was a bigger problem: a systemic loss of community and trust. “Snowden things and whatnot have done a lot of damage. But they have also proved that these fears are justified.

“To regain this trust takes quite a lot of time,” he went on. “There also needs to be a vision from the political side. It needs to be there always—a policy, not politics. But the politicians need to live it, because, in today’s world, everything will be public at some point.”

In Tallinn’s courtrooms, judges’ benches are fitted with two monitors, for consulting information during the proceedings, and case files are assembled according to the once-only principle. The police make reports directly into the system; forensic specialists at the scene or in the lab do likewise. Lawyers log on—as do judges, prison wardens, plaintiffs, and defendants, each through his or her portal. The Estonian courts used to be notoriously backlogged, but that is no longer the case.

“No one was able to say whether we should increase the number of courts or increase the number of judges,” Timo Mitt, a manager at Netgroup, which the government hired to build the architecture, told me. Digitizing both streamlined the process and helped identify points of delay. Instead of setting up prisoner transport to trial—fraught with security risks—Estonian courts can teleconference defendants into the courtroom from prison.

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.

Siim Sikkut, Estonia’s current C.I.O., says. Today, in Estonia, the weekly e-residency application rate exceeds the birth rate. “We tried to make more babies, but it’s not that easy,” he explained.

Estonian folklore includes a creature known as the kratt: an assembly of random objects that the Devil will bring to life for you, in exchange for a drop of blood offered at the conjunction of five roads. The Devil gives the kratt a soul, making it the slave of its creator.

“Each and every Estonian, even children, understands this character,” Kaevats said. His office now speaks of kratt instead of robots and algorithms, and has been using the word to define a new, important nuance in Estonian law. “Basically, a kratt is a robot with representative rights,” he explained. “The idea that an algorithm can buy and sell services on your behalf is a conceptual upgrade.” In the U.S., where we lack such a distinction, it’s a matter of dispute whether, for instance, Facebook is responsible for algorithmic sales to Russian forces of misinformation. #KrattLaw—Estonia’s digital shorthand for a new category of legal entity comprising A.I., algorithms, and robots—will make it possible to hold accountable whoever gave a drop of blood.

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.

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.”

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.

Although X-Road is a government platform, it has become, owing to its ubiquity, the network that many major private firms build on, too. Finland, Estonia’s neighbor to the north, recently began using X-Road, which means that certain data—for instance, prescriptions that you’re able to pick up at a local pharmacy—can be linked between the nations. It is easy to imagine a novel internationalism taking shape in this form.

“If everything is digital, and location-independent, you can run a borderless country,” Kotka said. 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.”