A half-century of life as part of the Soviet Union left Estonia with two major legacies. One was a quality educational system that produced a lot of people with advanced degrees in engineering and computer science. The other was a totally decrepit infrastructure. “We had to build everything from scratch,” recalls Taavi Kotka, a successful entrepreneur who is now the government’s chief information officer. With no money to speak of, Estonia could not turn to major European or North American suppliers for expensive new products. Instead, it put all those Soviet-trained computer scientists to work creating custom software at low cost.
A decade and a half after independence, Estonia received another unintended gift from Russia in the form of the world’s first cyberattack on a nation. In retaliation for the removal of a Soviet-era monument, Russia launched a denial-of-service attack on Estonian banking and government websites, briefly bringing the country to a halt. The silver lining is that Estonian engineers were able to identify the weaknesses in their system. They reacted by rethinking their entire e-Governance architecture, using “blockchain” technology so secure that an Estonian company is now selling it to the U.S. Department of Defence. One Russian legacy that no one can remove is their common 294-km border, which has been repeatedly violated over the centuries. With that in mind, e-Governance has been set up with the explicit goal of enabling Estonia to preserve all its records – on citizenship, population, land ownership, etc. – if the country is ever invaded again. The data is saved not only to the cloud but also on servers in a half dozen embassies abroad. “For the first time in our history, we’re in a position to have a country even if we don’t have land,” says Kotka. “No one can burn our records, or arbitrarily change the ownership of anything.”