Estonia 13 years after the cyberattack that changed the country
In 2007, Estonia became one of the first countries to suffer an attack using what today we call hybrid warfare. 13 years later, much of the country’s security has been build to prevent a similar situation.
It all began when Estonia moved a memorial honoring the Red Army to a different place in the capital. The memorial is still controversial today. For some, it represents the victory and liberation of Estonia from Nazism by the Soviet Union. For many Estonians, it also served as a constant reminder of decades of Soviet occupation of Estonia.
At first, there were protests against moving the statue, but when Russian-language media falsely claimed that the statues were being destroyed, the protests were exacerbated. In only two nights in April, riots in Tallinn left 156 injured and around 1,000 people detained. A day later, cyber-attacks followed for weeks.
A spike in Internet traffic collapsed the website of government agencies, banks, and media. Millions of spam and requests blocked the servers. In practice, this meant that Estonians were unable to take money out of ATMs, or operate online with their money. The media couldn’t report on it as their channels didn’t work. Public servants couldn’t communicate via email.
While it is suspected that the Russian government was behind the attack, there wasn’t any substantial evidence to back the suspiciousness. Although under NATO’s Art. 5, any attack on a NATO ally is an attack in all of them, two things made it difficult to retaliate. There wasn’t a major loss of life, and, as there was little evidence that Russia was behind it.
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and […] will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Art. 5. NATO.
The only hints to the responsibility of Russia were that all the attacks had come from Russian IP addresses, that Russia refused to help and that the communication with the attackers took place in Russian. After Estonia, Russia has been suspected of other cyber-warfare attacks in Georgia and Ukraine.
How Estonia turned into E-stonia
“It was a great security test. We just don’t know who to send the bill to,” Tanel Sepp, a cyber security official at Estonia’s Ministry of Defence.
The biggest experts in IT received training in cybersecurity from the Ministry of Defence and Estonia has created a Cyber Defence Unit operated by volunteers that, in their free time, practice what to do if they were to received another attack. While most countries would struggle to attract the best talent from the usually better paid private market, the memory of a paralyzed country in 2007 is enough to get volunteers to sign up.
Estonia is one of the most dependent countries in the world, so it is now crucial for it to increase computer literacy in its citizens. This starts from the begging: Tiger Leap Foundation, a government-funded technology investment body helped to digitalized schools, where now children in schools are taught programming languages.
Estonia hopes that this will protect the country from the world of Cyberwar, which is no longer in the future, but in our present.