Thursday, October 15, 2015

What the Estonian e-residency could mean for global e-voting

When seeking leadership and innovation in the area of e-voting and i-voting technology on a national scale, it's not in the United States, England or Germany where inspiration can be found. Instead, a decidedly smaller nation in the Baltic region of Northern Europe continues to act as a shining example of how a modern democracy can and should be run.

Estonia's widespread and enthusiastic adoption of secure, transparent, and robust Internet-based voting technologies is well documented and widely applauded. The country continues to move forward with new and better technologies, always looking to how its democracy can be better applied for its citizens. But what about the rest of the world?

Perhaps one of the more compelling developments to come out of Estonia in the last little while is the e-Residency project. From the official website, e-Residency “offers to every world citizen a government-issued digital identity and the opportunity to run a trusted company online, unleashing the world's entrepreneurial potential.”

The government startup effectively allows nearly anyone in the world to participate in Estonia without having to physically relocate to the European country. In effect, individuals can open Estonian bank accounts, launch Estonian businesses, and pay Estonian taxes, all via the Internet. The program is quickly growing and they anticipate that there will be 10 million e-Residents by the year 2020.

The identity of the prospective e-Resident is verified at one of the embassies located around the globe, meaning that he or she will still need to produce a passport and have his or her fingerprints recorded. The government will also conduct a background search to verified eligibility before issuing the e-Residency card.

Now, why does this matter?

The e-Residency project satisfies the requirements of Know Your Customer (KYC) regulations, allowing for improved cross-border investments and business operations while guarding against money laundering, terrorist financing, and other possible concerns. This provides lenders, crowdfunding providers and alternative finance platforms with the assurance of securely confirmed identity. What's more, while the digital signature is used extensively in Estonia, it will become legally equivalent to a traditional, handwritten signature in all of Europe's member states by July 1, 2016.

While the e-Residency program in Estonia is targeted within the contexts of online business and related operations, the fundamental guiding principles can be possibly extended to the area of electronic voting and Internet-based voting in government elections as well. If Estonia can issue an e-Residency card this way and if digital signatures can carry the weight that they will, these same technologies can be used to power elections in other countries when adapted to local conditions.

This allows for far easier access to the democratic process for citizens who may live in rural or remote areas. This provides for greater access for expatriates wishing to exercise their right to franchise from abroad. And it could significantly reduce the costs of running an election for a government while minimizing errors and maintaining the integrity of verified voters and ballots.

Challenges related to Internet voting systems are numerable, to be sure, but this e-Residency program could prove to be yet another example of how Estonia continues to solidify its place as an e-voting and i-voting global leader.