How Estonia turned a crippling cyber attack into an pioneering industry

02/10/2019 3:27 PM | Sherry Lee (Administrator)

by Anthony Cuzzucoli

Oppression wears many coats, and in a modern era when the latest science may be applied to sow discord and confusion, cyberattacks are the new black. Tiny Estonia, the victim of open oppression in the past, was the first nation to learn in April of 2007 that an entire nation can have its most essential institutions assaulted without benefit of identifying the enemy at large. It began in Tallinin, and the aggressor was eventually identified as the Russian bear.

Just as frightening, a minor incident seemed to have provoked the very first cyber-attack upon an entire nation. The decision to simply relocate a war memorial, a bronze Soviet soldier reflecting Russian resistance to Nazi invasion, was widely supported by a citizenry that saw the Soviets themselves as oppressors. Immediate street protests by Russian speaking residents grew as Russian news agencies blanketed the air waves with narratives of Soviet memorials and cemeteries being desecrated. Riots and looting began, and turmoil was soon followed by a new form of protest that took deadly earnest in its swift, unexpected, and universal applications. 

Overnight, whole battalions of Russian botnets sent waves of internet traffic that paralyzed and overwhelmed Estonian banks, media outlets, and government institutions, grounding their operations to a halt. Currency systems were down, commercial exchanges compromised, and media life silenced. The life of a nation was silently and swiftly strangled. There was no visible kinetic force exploding around them, no armor and infantry openly choking the public square; just confusion sowed, pervasive fear emerging like an invisible mustard gas, and the outcome: universal helplessness. The nation was under assault, but from whom, how, and where was it going?

Within the established world of conventional warfare, Estonia, as a member of NATO, could invoke the assistance of its fellow members under Article 5 of NATO’s agreement to respond to open invasion of another NATO member. But --- who was the invader paralyzing the nation and its economic lifeblood, and where were they? Did Article 5 really apply in this instance? How do armored columns and tactical aircraft respond to an enemy not seen in the air, or, on the ground? 

This was a clarion call for the West, but even more so, for the first targeted nation of a concerted cyberattack in modern history. Estonia gathered itself, and began to fight back. A nation galvanized its strongest citizens and institutions into action, and today, an amazed world is witnessing one of its smallest nation states employing every means necessary to protect itself from the repetition of such a humiliating and disastrous attack upon its people. Cyber defense became the national mantra as intrusion detection and defense systems were rapidly created and universally applied in both governmental as well as in private socio-economic institutions. Estonia was going to war. Annual cyber conferences have been established, universal training techniques constantly upgraded, and multiple enterprises encouraged on all levels to stiffen resistance to what continues to be targeting assaults upon its various institutions. Estonia is now engaged in modern cyber war with Russia. Ahead of other nations many times its size, Estonia has amassed a number of defense capabilities including the most complex international technical live-fire cyber defense exercise in the world. This nation has become a symbol for national resistance to cyber warfare whose surreal existence has now become universally recognized and accepted in an atmosphere of rising international security challenges. 

The capacity of one or more nations to systematically destroy the internal commercial and social systems of another nation is a life threatening event that is forcing nation states and international institutions to review international codes of conduct and rules of engagement, --- and Estonia is leading the way.

Resources: BBC News,  Tanel Sepp, Estonian Defense Ministry                     


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