The World Now Has Its First E-Resident

Estonia has begun issuing digital identities to people around the world, starting with the journalist Edward Lucas.

Edward Lucas has a habit of popping up at pivotal moments in European history.

In March 1990, shortly after Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union, the Economist editor caught a flight to Vilnius and received the first Lithuanian visa: number 0001, a stamp-sized chink in the Iron Curtain that got him arrested and deported by Soviet authorities.

On Monday, Lucas helped chip away at borders once again. In a ceremony in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a friend of Lucas's from Ilves's previous career as a journalist, made Lucas Estonia's first e-resident. And just like that, the word "resident" took on new meaning, distilled in the smart card below:

To be clear: E-residency is not a path to citizenship; it's not legal residency. It cannot be used as a travel document or a picture ID. Instead, it's a form of supranational digital identity issued, for the first time, by a country. It's the online self, now with a government imprimatur. And it's the latest innovation from a tech-savvy nation that brought you Skype, the world's first digitally signed international agreement, and an intricate national ID system that allows citizens to speedily elect politicians and file taxes online. The Baltic republic is so wired that officials are even contemplating uploading the government's digital infrastructure to the cloud so that it can continue operating if Russia invades Estonia.

Lucas is British and lives in London. He speaks "very basic spoken Estonian" and in the 1990s worked as a journalist in Tallinn, where his oldest son was born. Beyond that, his Estonian identity now consists of an ID card with a microchip for authentication and digital signatures, plus a card reader to help generate those signatures. The card will allow him to do things like sign documents, register a company in Estonia, conduct transactions with an Estonian bank account, and order prescriptions in Estonian pharmacies—all online, and from anywhere in the world. E-residents, in other words, will have access to many digital services that Estonians already enjoy, rather than having to go about these tasks through a more ponderous, paper-based process.

Edward Lucas (Saeima/Flickr)

As Lucas sees it, the biggest benefit of Estonian e-residency is "having a digital signature valid anywhere in the EU, or in any other country which uses electronic authentication" (Estonia is an EU member). He can, for example, use his new digital ID to a buy a ticket on a German train. And he can send authenticated emails, including encrypted messages to other cardholders.

"I can identify myself and other people online," he explained by email. "This is one of the biggest weaknesses of the internet. I do not know whether the people who send me e-mails are really those people, or just impersonating them (perhaps even cybercriminals who have broken into an e-mail account). Similarly it is hard for me to prove that I am me. Having a state-issued digital signature means that I can sign an e-mail (and if I wish encrypt it)."

In its embryonic form, at least, the program is a cross between techno-utopian ambition and bureaucratic reality—a theoretically seamless, borderless digital system grafted onto a messy physical world. E-residents will, for example, be able to use their Estonian bank accounts from anywhere they can get Internet, but they'll need to visit those banks in person to open the accounts. Anyone in the world over age 18 can apply for Estonian e-residency, but applicants need to first visit a Police and Border Guard office in Estonia, where they'll submit paperwork, pay a €5o ($62) fee, and provide biometric data (a facial image and fingerprints) for a background check—an attempt to keep criminals and hackers out of the system. Accepted e-residents will be able to pick up their ID cards within two weeks at the same office where they applied.

The point being: If you're interested in becoming an e-resident but don't live in the country or nearby, you might want to start planning that extended Estonian vacation you've always dreamed of. (If I were to leave D.C. for Tallinn tomorrow, and return two weeks later, a round-trip plane ticket would cost me at least $1,300, making that $62 fee seem just a touch steeper.) Siim Sikkut, an information and communications technology advisor in the Estonian government, told me by email that Estonia hopes to move the application process partially online and offer e-residencies at its embassies overseas by the end of 2015.

The population of Estonian e-residents is likely to be small, at least at first. Sikkut said that almost 13,300 people have signed up so far for an email listserv with updates on e-residency, and that Estonia will initially target roughly 40,000-50,000 foreigners who are already involved in the country as, say, students, investors, and businesspeople. Estonian officials have set ambitious goals of eventually attracting millions of e-residents and tens of thousands of companies, drawn to the ease of doing business in Estonia and the European Union. (According to Estonian officials, e-residents will have a similar legal status to foreigners in Estonia, though Estonian law will govern access to the data on ID cards.)

"Many people live in countries where the state does not issue digital IDs, or find their country's system cumbersome or untrustworthy," explained Lucas. "Now they have an alternative. Imagine a world where governments issued credit cards, and you were stuck with whatever your own country's government provided. Estonia is issuing the digital equivalent of the Amex card—you can use it anywhere."

I asked Sikkut what he made of talk that the e-residency scheme could disrupt the nation-state system as we know it.

E-residency "is not meant to be a meaningful innovation in the sense of revolutionizing citizenship," he noted. "We are solving a practical problem for people, allowing them to conduct business and carry out their lives more efficiently (meaning: digitally)."

"I personally think that citizenship will be tied to older territorial constructs for quite some time," Sikkut added. "However, I also think that citizenship is not the most defining feature of us anymore—rather a community feeling is, and each of us can belong to quite a few communities." In the long term, he wrote, the government is interested in exploring how it can make Estonia, a tiny nation of 1.3 million people, "larger in the world than we otherwise would be, as a community of e-Estonians."

In a way, Estonia's e-residency program is making the nation-state more relevant, not less. Lucas, for instance, acknowledged that private companies already sell digital IDs, but expressed concern about "severe shortcomings" in those services. "Estonia's card has the authority of a nation-state behind it," he wrote.

And how will Lucas respond if he's asked tomorrow about his nationality, or where he lives?

"I will still be a proud and loyal British subject," he responded. "But in my life online, where I am not constrained by national boundaries, I will be identifying myself with an Estonian-issued digital ID."