The Faroe Islands are an archipelago of 18 tiny and remote islands in the North Atlantic. An autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, which already has an e-state of its own in place, they decided in favour of Estonia"s approach—for technological as well as political reasons, writes Richard Martyn-Hemphill.
After more than a decade of Estonia showboating its e-governance methods to much of the world, it is no longer novel to see far larger nations than the Faroe Islands offering ample praise for Estonia"s drive to bring its interactions between government and citizens online.
During his 2014 visit to Tallinn, for instance, Barack Obama lauded Estonia as "the most wired country on earth." Then again, praise is often left as praise, and larger countries tend not to be so quick to follow Estonia"s e-example.
Partly that has been due to the prevalence of legacy systems and pre-existing vested interests. But there is also a large reservoir of public caution over privacy and security in an age of hacks and leaks. Deep seated mistrust of government over-reach is also sometimes at issue: Countries like Germany are still haunted by the data gathering techniques of the Stasi spy service during the Cold War, and citizens there still get jittery about too much data being handed over to a central power.
Yet in the northerly Faroe Islands, officials are all in. On these craggy, windy, chilly lands where sheep outnumber the local human population of just 50, 000, the Faroese are implementing an equivalent of Estonia"s digital ID cards along with its X-Road infrastructure—a solution that enables internet voting from anywhere in the world, transferable and accessible data across ministries, and a digital identity that allows you to prove your credentials online. The Faroese rollout is expected in 2019. There are no plans as yet for an e-residency programme to follow.
For the Faroese, this will mean fishermen out at sea will be able cast their vote as they cast their dragnets. But there is still some local opposition to digitalisation in a country of defiantly independent-minded citizens, which despite technically still being part of the Kingdom of Denmark, is not part of the European Union.
Not so long ago, postmen here had to deliver letters to some parts of these islands by foot across treacherous mountain passes. That all seems worlds away now, after years spent building an ever more ambitious tunneling system beneath its iconic fjords, followed by the implementation of Chinese-backed telecommunications systems that offer reception both on- and off-shore, and all combined with a layout of broadband cables that now bring the Faroese faster internet speeds than in Singapore.
"We want to show that being a small nation can be an advantage in our digitized world," said Kristina Hafoss, finance minister of the Faroe Islands, during a recent speech at the Arctic Circle Forum in Tórshavn.
"Estonia has become our main source of inspiration in constructing our digital infrastructure," she added.
The choice to go for Estonia"s model, however, is not a purely technical one. It is part of a wider Faroese bid for greater independence from the Kingdom of Denmark. These islands already have a great deal of self-rule, but the decision to go Estonia"s route also represents a rejection of Denmark"s model for further digitalisation.
Denmark uses a sophisticated system called NemID, where the citizens" cryptographic keys are managed centrally by a private company called NETS — a system used now by almost all its citizens. Estonia by contrast offers each citizen a national ID card that stores the keys — a decentralised approach.
The choice of Estonia was not a given. In 2017, Europe"s Digital Progress Report (EDPR) ranks Denmark, Finland and Sweden as the top three among all European countries. But the ability of Estonia"s system to be managed locally — and at relatively low cost by a small bureaucracy — appears to be the clincher.
"We have decided to be in charge of our digital development," stressed Ms Hafoss, a member of the pro-independence, left-wing Republican Party. "We hope that our solutions in "The Digital Faroe Islands" will be an inspiration for other nations around the world."
The person in charge of implementing this system on the Faroe Islands is Nicolai M. Balle. Citing a Faroese official trip to Estonia in 2014, where he said that "our eyes were opened," he mentioned his view that a decentralised system was better able to limit the risks of a knockout blow on critical digital infrastructure. He noted that he had been impressed by the resilience of Estonia"s systems in the face of threats from its large eastern neighbour. Since then, experts from Estonia"s E-Governance Academy, such as Uuno Vallner and Arvo Ott, have been providing his team with assistance and advice.
Carsten Schürmann of the IT University of Copenhagen warns that neither the Danish system nor the Estonian system should be considered infallible — as both the Estonians and the Danes have had their security systems called into question..
"It is clear that digitisation is a priority in this part of the world," he noted. "It is a good idea to do so, but how good the idea really is depends on the parliamentary decisions regarding changes to the legal framework and of course the technical implementation."
"Since Estonia and Denmark introduced their respective systems, the state of art has progressed," he said. "The Faroe Islands are probably best advised to take this progress into account when devising new laws and procuring new technology."
Richard Martyn-Hemphill is a reporter covering the Nordic-Baltic region. Martyn-Hemphill was editor of The Baltic Times 2014-2016 and an editor at Riddle, a Vilnius-based online journal covering Russia.
Editor: Dario Cavegn