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Tanel Sepp discusses Estonia as a digital society

On June 18, Mr. Tanel Sepp, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Estonian Embassy in Washington, D.C., delivered a lecture titled “Estonia as a Digital Society: From Ideas to Reality.” The lecture focused on how Estonia has become a leader in the areas of cybersecurity and digitalization. 

Mr. Sepp began with a brief overview of Estonia’s digital history. Regaining independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, the creation of Estonia was like “building a country from scratch.” In 1996, the Tiger Leap Foundation was created to support the teaching of ICT in schools as well as to create public internet access points all over Estonia. Since then, internet usage in the country has grown rapidly. Today, the World Economic Forum 2015 Report ranked Estonia as #2 globally in terms of accessibility to the internet. Approximately 98% of Estonia’s transactions are conducted through the Internet.

Estonia became the world’s first paperless government in 2001 and held its first online elections in 2005. Government-issued personal ID cards, first issued in January 2002, have presented a major transformation for Estonians: out of a population of 1.3 million, 1.2 million active ID cards exist. These cards contain a SIM card-like chip and can be used for functions ranging from providing personal medical records to filing tax returns. In fact, in 2013, over 95% of income tax declarations were done online.

The 2007 cyberattack carried out by Russia against Estonia took place in two phases, said Mr. Sepp, with the second phase, the main part of the attack, lasting almost three weeks. The attacks, using large botnets, were sophisticated and well-coordinated. The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks targeted critical national information infrastructure such as governmental internet-based communications and government websites. The attacks also signaled significant economic loss for the private sector. Calling the attacks “disruptive not destructive,” Mr. Sepp said data was not stolen and the attack was actually positive for Estonia, as it made the country as a whole focus on cybersecurity and defense issues. As a result of the attack, the government and non-governmental entities worked together to improve Estonia’s cybersecurity.

One of the lecture’s goals was to illustrate that the 2007 attack was not the beginning of the Estonian government’s and peoples’ attention to digitalization. The incorporation of the digital into people’s lives has been regarded as so successful in this country because of the general consensus among the main forces of society, political elites’ commitment to its spread, the appropriate mix of public and private initiative, and the active role of the government. Although another factor in Estonia’s success as a digital society is that it had little baggage of previous practices and thus could begin anew when it gained independence, Mr. Sepp maintains this country can be used as a positive example of success in this area for others, including the United States.

Mr. Sepp currently serves as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Estonian Embassy in Washington, D.C. He has formerly served as the South-Asia Counselor for the 3rd Political Department at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chargé d’Affaires for the Special Mission of Estonia to Afghanistan, and the Second Secretary for Civilian Crisis Management for the Permanent Delegation of Estonia to the EU. He holds a Master of Arts degree in International Relations from the Audentes University (currently Tallinn Technical University) and a B.A. from EuroUniversity, Tallinn.