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Embracing Digital Nationalism

Greece could take a lesson from Estonia.
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One hundred thousand people protest against the austerity measures in Athens, Greece, in 2011. (Photo: Eka k/Wikimedia Commons)

One hundred thousand people protest against the austerity measures in Athens, Greece, in 2011. (Photo: Eka k/Wikimedia Commons)

Greece is in trouble, seemingly stuck in a kind of catastrophic stasis. The country is unable to exit the Eurozone successfully and commit to transitioning back to a currency of its own, yet it also cannot comply with Germany’s stringent demands, pushing back against arguments in favor of  shrinking its welfare state. As evidenced by the indeterminacy of the bailout package votes, Greece’s fate lies somewhere outside its own hands.

This situation has me wondering about technology’s role in nationalism—specifically, if the right digital infrastructure could help a nation and its citizens maintain a stronger grasp on their own affairs. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, for example, Christopher Mims found that Bitcoin’s blockchain technology could help Greece issue a new, digital-friendly alternate currency quickly and cheaply. (In fact, Bitcoin itself increased in value as Greece debated its reaction to bailout offers.)

A Bitcoin-like currency could allow Greece better control over its own money, backed by the value of state-owned assets rather than the collective integrity of the Eurozone as a whole, the consensus of which against Greece is intensifying the current crisis. The Bitcoin suggestion predicts a kind of digital nationalism in which technology can help a country support itself, decentralizing aspects of government to allow more individual participation, while making that infrastructure less dependent on those outside of it.

When technology is constantly outracing the government, how can elected officials piggyback on its innovations to better serve their constituents?

The idea of digital nationalism is usually defined in terms of soft power—the cultural weight that a country can throw around to garner political support or wage information warfare purely through media, without any soldiers hitting the ground. China, for example, has harnessed news sites and social media to turn its citizens against Japan and in support of its owning the Diaoyu islands. But these days, it might be more relevant to think of digital nationalism as happening through increasingly literal technology—systems like Bitcoin, physical places like data farms, and the locus of omnipresent companies like Google and Uber.

When technology is constantly outracing the government, how can elected officials piggyback on its innovations to better serve their constituents? Weirdly enough, the country making the most progress on this question is Estonia, a tiny state of 1.3 million on the northernmost edge of Europe that shares a border with far western Russia (it regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991).

Estonia is one of the most wired countries in Europe. Freedom House, an American watchdog organization, ranked it second in the world in terms of Internet freedom. Through its Information Systems Authority, Estonia has aggressively moved to securely put its government infrastructure online. In 2014, it carried out a successful plan to back up and restore the entirety of its government online. This means records of its citizens, information feeds that flow through the government, even the texts of laws themselves.

I reached out to Jaan Priisalu, the former director general of the Information Systems Authority, on Skype. Priisalu has been an outspoken advocate of digital sovereignty and security, arguing that even American systems of digital encryption are suspect. He’s now a senior fellow at Estonia’s NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, a research and training facility funded by NATO countries.

The ability to be proactive about digital nationalism is based first on awareness of the country’s digital footprint, he says. "In Estonia we know how many information systems we have, we know how much data they contain, and what kind of data they have," he says. "It’s quite rare." Saudi Arabia and Japan were the only other two countries able to give such an inventory; Priisalu put the number of data feeds that make up the Estonian government at 65,000.

It’s this mass of feeds that worries Priisalu—in the event of a massive cyberattack, political revolution, or even land invasion, how would the Estonian government maintain its digital services like its national ID program, health care, or access to the Internet itself? "We realized that we in the state can’t run the government electronically only," Priisalu says. Now, with the advent of the Information Systems Authority and the failsafe programs, "all the government functions we have we can do them digitally. It is possible that you can continue with institutions even in the case that your territory is occupied. You can have the code backed up, transporting the content of your information system, storing it somewhere outside of your territory."

What this means less theoretically is a series of extra-national data hubs, which, in case of emergency, Estonia can use to restore its national technological infrastructure. The Information Systems Authority wasn’t only designed for duress, however: "[S]omebody must coordinate those activities in peacetime, when you don’t have the crisis," Priisalu says. The Authority’s most important power is "the ability to acquire data," he continues—in other words, to take stock of the information flowing through a nation and account for its future viability.

We in the United States have the National Security Agency to collect our data, yet we lack any public-facing governmental institution actually charged with taking care of our data. We don’t regulate Bitcoin, nor do our national banks have APIs. What Estonia’s system is proposing, and what a country like Greece could use now, is an assurance that just because instability strikes, citizens don’t lose leverage to that information.

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka's weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.