estonia data center

Estonia experiments with blockchain, smart services and 'data embassies'

Estonia’s digital cred is well established, and its programs that let citizens use their smartphones to access government services are a source of envy among other tech-savvy nations. “I should have called the Estonians when we were setting up our health care website,” then-President Barack Obama even joked in a 2014 press conference.

Lately, the country is focused on security threats to citizens and the nation as a whole.

The heart of Estonia’s digital government is identity. Citizens get an ID Card that serves a number of different purposes, including acting as a national health insurance card and serving as authentication for bank accounts, digital signatures and voting. Creating these digital IDs is a vital part of having a digital government, President Kersti Kaljulaid said at an April 4 event hosted by the Atlantic Council

“In the real world, or the analog world, you don’t imagine that you can’t identify the other person with whom you are talking or interacting or contracting,” she said. "Governments have exactly the same obligation in the digital sphere to provide people with identification.”

The large amount of data created by digital services is managed by Estonia's X-Road, a secure and standardized platform that enables data exchange across various information systems.

The data in the system stays where it is created.  It is shared with others that might need to access it, but is never duplicated and stored in other system. The government sees even more potential in blockchain to improve upon this process, Kaljulaid said.

Estonia envisions an environment where the government anticipates the services its citizens need without them having to go through an application process. If a family has a child, for example, the government will know about the birth, so the social services provided to new families should be automatically offered and administered. Blockchain can help make this a reality, Kaljulaid said.

The government is currently piloting a blockchain application related to traffic accident reporting. Once an accident is reported and registered online, the parties involved would be provided information on how the resolution of the case and the insurance outcome. With blockchain the entire case could be handled in 30 minutes, Kaljulaid estimated.

When asked if the government plans to use blockchain to secure voting infrastructure, Kaljulaid said that would be the last place it would likely be implemented. Elections require the public's highest confidence, and blockchain is too new to be trusted on voting systems at this point, she said.

Because Estonia runs on data, it needed a secure backup location outside the country and came up with the idea for the first data embassy, which it opened in Luxembourg last year.

After the  2007 cyberattack, which experts believe was perpetrated by the Russian government, took a number of Estonia's online services down, officials realized they needed to back up data in multiple geographic locations, possibly by storing it in its existing embassies around the world. Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea drove home the point, according to an e-Estonia blog post.

“It’s a simple thing,” Kaljulaid said in response to a question about the data embassy. “Every private enterprise has a safe copy of everything it has.”

For Kaljulaid, the interesting part about the data embassy isn’t the technology -- it’s just a server farm -- but the legal framework. The data embassy is sovereign territory of Estonia, and the computers and data stored within it are the property of the Estonian government, she said.

“Whether we need to have more [backups], well, time will tell,” she said. “But I’m quite sure that people would be quite happy to host an Estonian data embassy.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.


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