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Ilves: Legislation more important than technology in creating digital state

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: (AFP/Scanpix)

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, an advocate of Estonia as an e-state, stressed after a potential security risk was detected in Estonian ID cards that the country's reputation as an e-state was not under threat. The establishment of a digital state does not depend solely on technology, but also, more importantly, on a legislative basis, Ilves finds.

About an hour's drive away from San Francisco, at the heart of Silicon Valley, lies Stanford University. Beginning this January, former President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves began working here, in a corner office of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, as a distinguished visiting fellow in the area of cybersecurity, reported the weekend edition of ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera."

ERR's Washington correspondent Maria-Ann Rohemäe asked Ilves what university students and young people ask him when he tells them about a tiny marvel of a country such as Estonia.

"First of all they come and look me up because they have already come to the conclusion that such a place exists, and then they come to me speficially — 'I am researching this' or 'I am doing my master's thesis on this subject,'" Ilves said. "I have an anthropologist here who wants to study the anthropology of the Estonian digital state."

Ilves does not give regular lectures at Stanford, but he constantly has to write articles and occasionally participate in seminars that take place at the university.

Promoting e-state potential abroad

The former president also occasionally has the opportunity to greet visiting Estonian politicians, but the majority of his time is spent on trips abroad or at conferences, where Ilves explains, based on the Estonian example, how to establish a secure digital environment.

Ilves recently visited Uruguay, where digital experts from Panama, Mexico, Argentina and Peru were also present. "Then it became clear that Panama has adopted Estonia's X-Road one to one and is currently applying it," he noted.

Earlier this year, Ilves was awarded the Bertelsmann Foundation's Reinhard Mohn prize for his work on the promotion of a digital state. This award recognizes modern solutions applied to sociopolitical issues which could be applied in Germany as well.

Following the spread of the news of a potential security risk affecting hundreds of thousands of Estonian ID cards, Ilves' clear stance on the issue was that Estonia's reputation as an e-state was not in danger, as all systems were operational and the issue was only a technical one with the physical chip used in affected ID cards.

According to Ilves, a lot of foreigners believe that the establishment of a digital state is dependent upon technology, but this is not actually the case — that what is important, in fact, is the legislative basis upon which it is built.

"For example, Japan and Germany have ID cards, but if they are not willing to take the step to make them compulsory and universal, so that they would be tied to the population register and given some kind of legal meaning, then this will not develop," he said.

Ilves also disagrees with the belief that Estonia's formula for an e-state cannot be applied to large countries. He recently met with Alec Ross, who served as Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton under the Obama Administration and is running for governor in the state of Maryland.

According to Ilves, Ross promised that, if elected, he would immediately implement Estonia's system in his home state.

Security policy likewise hot topic

In addition to the digital field, Ilves also works in the U.S. on matters related to security policy, and claims that he is contacted four or five times per week regarding the large-scale joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad or his comments on a recent statement made by the U.S. president.

Earlier this summer, prior to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's visit to Estonia, U.S. political magazine Politico asked Ilves why top U.S. politicians visit Estonia in particular.

"In the case of the U.S., one thing is for certain, and that is the two percent of GDP that is dedicated to defense spending — it's very simple," Ilves believed. "And I assume that the advantage we currently have will disappear as other states also begin spending as much as well, but this isn't like a reputation — this isn't a matter of promotion."

Ilves will remain at Stanford for about another year. While he is uncertain what exactly he will do next, one thing is for sure — there is plenty of work to do.

"Someone said that I haven't taken a break for over a year," the former president recalled. "I said that I haven't gone on vacation since around 1989. I don't know. It doesn't interest me. I prefer to keep busy with things all the time."

Ilves especially enjoys just being able to ride the bus in Stanford, as it isn't nearly as simple to do so as president in Tallinn.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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