Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea, has faced subjection by larger, more powerful countries throughout its history. Following decades of occupation by the Soviet Union, the country emerged free and independent at the end of the Cold War. Since its independence in 1991, the country has embarked on a major efforts to change the way governments and citizens interact through technology.
Estonia was one of the first countries to mandate the use of personal digital identification and moved nearly all aspects of civil and commercial life online. Every person over the age of 15 is required to have a chip ID card. The cards are encrypted and give every Estonian citizen the ability to electronically sign any government document as well as access to their bank accounts and personal records.
On the other side of the transaction, every single element of the Estonian government must accept this digital signature; no citizen can be forced to sign a paper copy. Taxes are all handled digitally and automatically; employers report employment taxes every month while banks and charities do the same with deductions. Tax refunds are digitally transferred back into citizens’ bank accounts within two days of filing. This online government extends further than just providing services or collecting taxes. Citizens can vote in Parliamentary elections online, with nearly 24% doing so in 2011. Drafts of legislation are placed online where citizens can see the substance of every change as well as which lawmaker made the change.
This technological focus extends to personal privacy and national cyber security as well, with the NATO Cooperative Cyber Security Defense Center headquartered in Estonia. In terms of personal privacy, Estonians themselves control who has access to their online records. If a government officials or investigator accesses records for any reasons, the citizen is instantly made aware and can file a complaint. The burden is always on the government official to justify the intrusion. Always mindful of its days as an occupied county, the government is capable of being run entirely remotely. In the event of a foreign occupation, an Estonian government in exile could be rebooted anywhere in the world and still function and serve its citizens.
If Estonia, a country with a population of less than 1.3 million people could muster the technological prowess and political will to build an online government from scratch, then imagine what the United States could do if it only had an Estonian mindset.