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17th Oct 2019

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Build trust before you introduce e-voting, says Estonian president

  • "Culture prevails also when you create your digital state," said Estonian president Kaljulaid (r) (Photo: Saeima)

Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid defended her country's practice of online voting, saying in some ways it is even more secure than the traditional way of voting via paper ballots, but warned other countries not to introduce e-voting too quickly.

“I believe we have a well-protected identification system,” she told journalists in Tallinn on Thursday (29 June).

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Kaljulaid spoke with the media two days before the Baltic nation assumes its six-month presidency over the Council of the EU, during which it wants to focus on the benefits of digital technology.

Estonia is keen to profile itself as a digital pioneer. During the most recent parliamentary elections in 2015, 30 percent of the votes were cast online.

Other interactions Estonian citizens have with the state are also becoming increasingly digital.

Elsewhere in Europe, though, concerns over online voting and hacking have been central in recent elections.

But Kaljulaid was still confident in the system.

“In addition to having a really secure personal identification system, which is a physical card, and two codes – I think, frankly, it's slightly stronger than somebody opening my passport with my photo that is six years old,” she said.

“We have made the system even stronger by the fact that e-voting lasts several days,” said the Estonian president.

That means that even if someone were to force someone to support a certain candidate, they could simply vote again later – as only the last one counts.

“It is changeable until the e-voting is closed. Trying to buy votes or influence the result simply doesn't fly,” she said.

Kaljulaid also said that the vote is not traceable to the voter, and that e-voting was “maybe even slightly more secure” because, on a paper ballot, there may be fingerprints that could identify the voter.

However, the Estonian president, whose role is ceremonial, said she would not advise other countries to simply copy the Estonian model.

“Every state has a different culture. This culture prevails also when you create your digital state. You need to find your own solutions which will convince your own people to use digital [methods],” said Kaljulaid.

Moreover, she advised against rushing into e-voting.

“I would never advise using e-voting as the first digital service to start digital change in your society,” she said.

“You need to start with simpler services: applications for registering a child at school or at music school, then gradually going to applying for social services over the internet.”

“When people gain confidence that the state is in no way betraying them … then you can move to a higher-risk services.”

Kaljulaid said “a lot of trust in cyber security” is needed, as well as “cyber hygiene”.

According to the president, her citizens have a high level of cyber hygiene, and know that they regularly need to update their systems to close security weaknesses.

“The cyber sphere is never totally risk-free, nothing in life is. … [But that is] not a reason to withdraw from the cyber system”.

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