Big data presents greater privacy threat than Big Brother, Estonian president says at MIT Sloan

“The role of government … is to make sure you are secure,” President Toomas Hendrik Ilves tells students

September 27, 2013

Estonia president Toomas Hendrik Ilves makes a point to MIT Sloan Professor Fiona Murray at a Sept. 26 panel discussion

Estonia president Toomas Hendrik Ilves makes a point to MIT Sloan Professor Fiona Murray at a Sept. 26 panel discussion

Don’t fear Big Brother, Estonia President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said at MIT Sloan this week. Instead, worry about “little sister,” or a corporation that “knows everything about you and tells everyone.”

To Ilves, “government” is not a dirty word when it comes to data management and security. One of the smallest countries in Europe, Estonia is a leader in e-government. More than 98 percent of bank transactions, tax returns, and prescriptions in the country are handled online, Ilves said. Nearly 25 percent of votes in Estonia’s 2011 parliamentary elections were submitted online.

In Estonia, citizens access government services using a secure identity through a 2048-bit public key infrastructure. The country in 2000 passed a digital signature law that makes the secure identity legal as a signature.

“Privacy no longer exists in the way it existed in the 18th … 19th … 20th century,” Ilves said on a Sept. 26 panel about technology and state sponsored by the MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship and Innovation Club. “The role of government … is not to snoop at you, but to make sure you are secure.” The relationship between privacy, security, and freedom is shifting, Ilves said.

Of more concern than Big Brother, Ilves said, is big data. He pointed to “free” apps that collect users’ behavior and location, as well as the well-publicized example of Target using purchasing data to send coupons to pregnant women as greater instances of privacy violation than any of Estonia’s government initiatives.

MIT professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland argued on the panel that big data is too significant an idea to dismiss as simply dangerous. He explained how cell phone data in Ivory Coast was recently used to improve commute times and develop a fresh census. The same type of big data methods could track and predict a pandemic as it develops, Pentland said, improving the public health response.

“Such a system, while it may seem a mockery of privacy in many ways, could save hundreds of millions of lives,” Pentland said. “So the question is ‘How do you control big data?’”

Estonia, which was occupied by Germany and the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991, emerged into independence with antiquated infrastructure. In an effort to catch up, the country turned its attention to technology and technological literacy. Ilves, who began programming at 13, and began his government career as ambassador to the United States in 1993, was a natural fit to lead a country so dedicated to technological development. He said on the panel that technological literacy among political leaders in much of Europe is poor. But Estonia’s open source government platform is being used or explored in Moldova, Tunisia, Myanmar, and by the Palestinian Authority, among others.

The country is best known in the technology and entrepreneurship world for its role in the early days of voice-over-IP service Skype, the creation of young Estonian developers. Today, Estonia is offering programming courses to first-graders, a pilot program that Ilves said is so popular that there are not enough teachers to meet demand.

“Here in this small, not-so-rich country, people saw that by being creative innovators … you could in fact accomplish huge things,” he said.

The panel was moderated by MIT Sloan Professor Fiona Murray and included Xenia Menzies, MBA ’14, a founding member of the crowdfunding political donation service BillBacker.