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Estonia – a fully digitised nation

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The former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves discusses the benefits of full governmental digitisation in his country with a world-renowned journalist Charlie Rose.  

We transcribed the interview below:

Charlie Rose

If you look at Estonia today, I mean, the government is online.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Well, there are three things you cannot do in Estonia online. [After the Covid pandemic era, only two public services remain – getting married and divorced – that require a physical presence.- e-Estonia.] You can’t get married online, you can’t get divorced online. You have to show up for both events. And finally, which is also important for New York City and Miami, and London, is that you cannot do transfers of real property or real estate online. You have to show up, we don’t allow anonymous shell companies to be beneficiary owners, so you don’t end up with Russian mafiosi buying apartments in Trump Tower, which, in fact, has happened. We need to know in my country who’s buying property.

Charlie Rose

But you can do all these other things… I mean, you can do your medicine, and you can do education, and you can do your taxes. And you can do all these government functions, which makes the government more efficient and makes the government more responsive and makes the government more modern, and

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

And far less corrupt. One of the least corrupt countries now in the world, which, especially for a former communist country, is quite the accomplishment.

Charlie Rose

So that means that Estonia, today, is one of the most advanced digitised countries in the world?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Yes.

Charlie Rose

Compared with…I would assume South Korea?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

South Korea, though they’re not very advanced in services. Singapore, probably

Charlie Rose

Singapore – a city-state.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Yeah.

Charlie Rose

But everybody can be what Singapore and Estonia are.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Yes, but these are never tech questions. These are always questions of political will.

Charlie Rose

Right. Just political will?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

95%, if not more political will because

Charlie Rose

What will be the resistance?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Well, for example, you do need a secure and unique digital identity for this to work. I mean, if you recall 1993, there was this great cartoon in the New Yorker where one dog says to the other, ‘on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog’.

Charlie Rose

Well, that’s the problem

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

The problem is that in order to have a safe internet, no one should be able to spoof you or rather be you. Or you should know that the government needs to know you are you and you need to know the government is sending you something that is really from the government. And so that is the first sine qua non. It’s having security… secure and unique, everything requires two-factor authentication, which is something you have and something you know… put together, like a chip card and a code. And then you need to have a distributed architecture, which means things are they’re not all in one database, which leads to

Charlie Rose

Has led, especially in the United States, to complete and utter disasters, where some foreign country sucks out all records of all US federal employees. Has happened in 2015.

Charlie Rose

But how do you put all the advantages of a digitised nation into the current controversy about disinformation? President Obama has been speaking out on that. Facebook has been answering questions about that for several years now. We’ve had hacking going crazy, in terms of nation-states doing it.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Well, the hacking part is what we are especially robust in… defending all government services. So that part’s easy. Disinformation actually doesn’t relate directly to the digitalization of the country. We are fairly

Charlie Rose

But it gives you the power to do it, does it not?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Well, I mean we’re also number one in the world in internet freedom so we don’t interfere at all and we are number five in the world in the freedom of the press and the US is like 36 or something. So we’re doing fairly well on that. We don’t interfere in those things, but we do monitor very carefully what is done and make public when there is this information. Which is… I mean that’s what we do. We have not had too many cases of anyone really taking seriously political disinformation. It’s been a little worse with vaccinations but that’s not country-specific. People read all kinds of stuff.

Charlie Rose

But it is internet-specific

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

It is internet specific. But whereas… I mean, disinformation about your country, about something happening there

Charlie Rose

Conspiracy theories coming from everywhere

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Right. I mean, so you can read an American anti-vaxxer page and get your whatever theories there. Whereas I mean, making up stories about what’s going on in Estonia is very country-specific. And those things we counter and say, well, this is disinformation.

Charlie Rose

Did Russia attack… Estonia?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Yes. I mean digitally.

Charlie Rose

Yes.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Yes. In 2007, 15 years ago, more or less this week. We were subject to massive cyber attacks, they were

Charlie Rose

To shut down the country

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Correct! They were… The key thing to understand is that these are called DDoS or distributed denial of service attacks. And the way they work is you overload servers so they can’t respond anymore. So government sites, newspapers, banks, and most importantly, we’re unable to function. And this was… Well, I characterise it as that it was the first public state on state attack, which means digital attack, which qualifies it according to von Clausewitz, as the continuation of policy by other means. So you-

Charlie Rose

I read his theories on war.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Right. So what’s the definition of war? And basically, most history books now, already, it’s been enough time when writing about cyber issues say, well, the first place this anything was actually done in a sort of hostile way, is Estonia. Clearly, there had been hacking for years before that. But that was always sub rosa. No one really… We know afterward that in 1999, the Russians hacked into the Defense Department. But they didn’t announce it at the time. Later on, we found out there was this attack, even had its own name, wound-like mile, and… all that came out later. But this was… in real-time things are shut down.

Charlie Rose

And how bad was it?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Bad!

Charlie Rose

What did you learn from it?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

That we have to have much more robust defences than we had and since then, we have come under considerable attack, but it has not shut anything down. And, we, in fact, have helped a number of countries including Ukraine in the past seven years, eight years. When they come under this kind of attack, we have ameliorating measures that can be taken so that in fact, if servers are being overloaded, you can shift some of the traffic somewhere else. So we host so-called mirror sites, so people in Ukraine can continue to use the internet or say, their banking or something like that. And there have been huge numbers of those kinds of attacks ever since 2007, in Estonia, and some of them have been quite huge elsewhere. But we have not suffered from one after that.

Charlie Rose

But are you advising the Ukrainians today as to how to resist that if, in fact, the Russians, who are the aggressors here, tend to use it as a weapon of war?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Well, there are many things you can do online, and this is one of them. And so we help with that. But also for example, when the Russians shut down the electrical grid in a number of bigger areas in Ukraine in 2015, our cybersecurity people went immediately down there to advise them. And I mean since that time, we have been hosting the NATO Centre of Excellence for Cyber Defense.

📺 Watch the full episode at charlierose.com.

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