Berkman Digital Culture Personal

Estonian E-Residency


On August 26th, 2015, I applied to be a digital citizen of the country of Estonia. On November 18th, 2015, I took the train from Boston to New York City, walked to the Consulate General of Estonia, and I officially became an Estonian E-resident.


What does that even mean, and why would I do it?

Estonia is one of the very first countries to implement a robust electronic identity card system for their citizens. The ID card is a smart card that has a chip embedded in it that enables a robust public-key encryption implementation that allows the owner of said card to legally sign documents electronically. Estonia has been building out their infrastructure for electronic signatures and digital identity for over a decade, and Estonian citizens can do a vast amount of interaction with their government through this system, including things like the DMV, registering for governmental programs, and even voting in elections. The system is being overseen by Taavi Kotka, the CIO of Estonia and founder of Skype.

The E-Residency program is an extension of this system to non-Estonian citizens. In its current state, the card allows me to open and run a business in Estonia if I would like (completely remotely), to set up a bank account (not completely remotely, but the banks are promising that soon), and to interact with a handful of companies that recognize the card as a legal identity document. While I don’t currently need to do any of these things, I am intrigued by the potential for robust digital identities to conduct business and interact with agencies in the real world, and right now Estonian E-Residency is the only way to do that as an American citizen.

According to the Estonian dashboard that tracks these things, I am one of 443 applicants from the US, but only 239 of us have actually picked up our cards. So somewhere in the US there’s 238 other people that are interested in playing around with this technology.

esotnia numbers

Becoming an E-Resident involves applying, paying a 50 Euro processing fee, and if accepted, picking up your E-Residency kit at an Estonian Consulate. The kit comes with your smart card, as well as a USB card reader and instructions for using the two together to interact with online portals securely.




Once you have these in your possession, you can log in to the Estonia E-Residency portal, use your card for authentication, and access the currently-available services through your browser.

I’m doing this partially because I am very curious about the future of the program, and hope that this might enable some interesting things over the next few years. If I’m honest with myself, it’s also because I read far too much cyberpunk literature as an impressionable youth, and the concept of digital citizens of a physical nation-state thrills the hell out of me.

The other aspect of this program that I find interesting is that they are opening the platform for developers to use their cards as an authentication method. Obviously there isn’t enough uptake for that to be useful yet, but systems like this one may well become standards over the next decade and knowing how to use them now will only be an advantage.

As I find interesting uses for my E-Residency, I’ll post about it here. For now, I’m just happy to be one of the first in the US to have the opportunity to test this authentication and identity platform.

Digital Culture

Identity 2.0 meets real life

Mark from BoingBoing tells this story about a friend who meets the next identity crisis early: what do you do when there’s bad information given about you, and you have no recourse?

What interests me is that this whole phenomenon is only just beginning to get rolling. Criminal background checks are still a little too expensive right now for most apartment landlords, home-owner associations, and employers. That obviously will not last, since apparently those millions of paper documents in county court houses have been largely digitized. Now that the data entry has been completed (competently or otherwise), information just wants to be free, right? Certainly it wants to be cheaper than $78. In a few years (or maybe months) from now, when you can check any job applicant or prospective tenant for $5, or maybe for free if the service is supported by context-sensitive popup ads, everyone will be checking everyone. Already it costs me nothing to view a map of the alleged child molesters living in my neighborhood. (I wonder how many errors are in _that_ database.) Can other felons be far behind?

Maybe one of your readers has some ideas on how this can be fixed. I don’t see any way. It makes the fuss over Wikipedia look pretty trivial; John Seigenthaler certainly didn’t have to submit a set of fingerprints to get _his_ error corrected, and it didn’t deprive him of a place to live, either.

This is as much about information management as it is identity. I’m not sold on this answer, but what if we owned the information about ourselves? That is, any information that was a formal measure of my identity was owned by me in the same sense that I can own copyright on something I write. I could then license said information to those institutions I wished (the government would have built in license for identification purposes, I suppose, in a limited scope) and could sue organizations that used my information illegally. We solve junk mail and the many-database problem all at once. Of course, the cure may be worse than the disease…