[The Future is Now] Estonia proves that digitalization works

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[The Future is Now] Estonia proves that digitalization works


Kersti Kaljulaid

Estonia, a small country in northern Europe, doesn’t top many global rankings. It’s not a very big country, roughly equivalent to half of South Korea, and its population is tiny - just 1.3 million people, only 2 percent of Korea’s population.

But when it comes to technology and digitalization, Estonia is miles ahead of its peers. Ninety-nine percent of all banking transactions and 95 percent of tax declarations happen online in less than 3 minutes. It was the first country in Europe to allow test drives of autonomous cars on public roads and home to pioneering video call program Skype.

“In Estonia, people use digital identity for public services and to pay fines,” said Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid on Oct. 10 at a press event as part of her three-day visit to Korea. “Now we have the first generation of people that have no memory having to queue in public offices - I think since the last four to five years now.”

Kaljulaid said the government has an obligation to devise a safe system to protect against data breaches and educate its people on “cyber hygiene,” meaning ways to better protect your own data.

Estonian people have an identity card equipped with a microchip that gives them 24-hour access to any kind of public service through personal computers, except marriage, divorce and real estate. Their personal data - from family relations and finances to medical records - are registered in multiple databases instead of one that grants access in a way similar to blockchain, devised years before the term became a global frenzy.

The bits and pieces of personal information can be viewed at once if the right person with the right identification links them together, including citizens themselves, public servants and doctors in regards to medical records.

The development of digital ID cards has been discussed many times in Korea but concerns over security repeatedly surfaced. Multiple cases of hacking at financial institutes, online service providers and public fatigue with spam messages and calls added to the general concern over data breaches.

Kaljulaid said that keeping personal information safe is easier online than on paper, on the condition that the government comes up with a safe security system. In Estonia, access to public services can be granted by a combination of a personal identification number and physical tokens or passwords. Civic servants and certain professionals are able to view the personal data of others but the data’s owner is immediately notified. If it is found that the information was viewed without a proper justification, the perpetrator can be prosecuted.

“[There cases] were highly mediatized so everybody learned quickly that even if you have access to somebody’s data, you always need justification to access to it,” said the president.

Estonia’s digital revolution happened quickly. When the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country had no money to pay its public servants. Digitalization was the solution.

Since 2014, Estonia has opened its digitalized public services to foreigners as well by issuing an e-Residency. The identity card grants access to all of the country’s public services online, including procedures to open a company inside the Eurozone.

“Estonia is a small country but we want to make the economy a lot bigger and that’s our biggest motivation, but we also want to bring more people close to Estonia,” said Otto Vatter, the deputy director in charge of e-Residency at the Estonian government.

BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]
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