Imagine a country being able to double the size of its economy, almost at the touch of a button, or the click of a mouse. The tiny Baltic state of Estonia aims to do just that. Next month, Estonia will become the first country in the world to offer foreigners so-called “ e-residency,” which could hugely expand its customer base without increasing the size of its physical population of 1.3 million people.
Estonia is trying to cash in on what it calls its digital infrastructure. It’s one of the most e-connected places on the planet with almost every home, office, factory and classroom hooked up to the internet, and most government business conducted online; Estonia even uses e-voting in its general elections.
Now, foreigners will be invited to sign up, pay $64, and become an e-resident of Estonia.
“E-residency is basically a government-guaranteed digital identity,” explains Siret Schutting, Estonia’s e-ambassador. “We are allowing foreigners to acquire what every Estonian already has: a digital signature. This means they can securely sign documents online. It’s legally the same as a handwritten signature.”
You “sign” by using a unique code along with your own smartcard and reader. E-residency won’t give you right to live in Estonia or even to visit the country, but Taavi Kotka of the Ministry for Economic Affairs in the capital Tallinn says it will let you do business there.
“You can open up a bank account, start a company, run a company, all that stuff," he says. "We’re aiming to sign up 10 million e-residents. That would give a big boost to the Estonian economy. More customers for our banks, for telecom companies ... for everybody.”
Kotka claims e-residency will be totally secure. To qualify, you must supply biometric data — like finger prints — and be vetted. However, Ian Bond, a former British ambassador to neighboring Latvia, is not entirely reassured.
“I would have some concerns about who exactly would be getting e-residency. With Russia on its doorstep, there is a risk of money laundering. There is a risk of exploitation by organized crime. $64 won’t pay for much in-depth vetting,” he says.
Estonia knows all about cyber problems from its mighty neighbor; the country suffered a massive attack from Russian hackers in 2007, apparently because it planned to relocate a Soviet-era war memorial. Estonian government, bank, police and other emergency websites crashed under a bombardment of service denial messages. But the Baltic state weathered the storm and it is now host to NATO’s cyber security headquarters. Estonia reckons that although it is small, it can defend itself — and its residents — in cyberspace.