'Every Country Should Have a Cyber War': What Estonia Learned from Russian Hacking

Tallinn, Estonia at sunset.

Tallinn, Estonia at sunset. Dmitry Tkachenko Photo/Shutterstock.co

The attacks made Estonia more determined than ever to safeguard its digital economy.

In 1991, Estonia was part of the dying communist empire. Its economy was run by central planners in Moscow, less than half of all households had a phone line, and goods were so scarce that people had to line up for food.

Skip ahead 26 years, and Estonians don’t even have to queue to vote. They do that online.

In just over two decades, Estonia has become one of the world’s most digitally innovative and efficient countries. In fact, Estonians conduct all their civic responsibilities online. Offices and paper forms have become obsolete as state-issued digital identities allow all citizens to carry out any financial or government transaction from their laptops or cellphones. And that gives them an edge when it comes to cybersecurity.

Estonia’s journey down the digital road has been astonishingly fast. When it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it had almost no money and few natural resources. But it did have one advantage: It was the designated center for software and computer production for the USSR. After achieving independence, the country had a pool of tech expertise for them to build on.

During these early years of independence, Estonia needed to create the means for a new economy. And it wasn’t going to be easy. The country’s tiny population of just 1.3 million is spread over a relatively vast countryside. Outside the capital Tallinn, there’s an average of just four people per square kilometer. The new government didn’t have the resources to extend government offices or banking facilities to small towns and villages, so it decided to encourage self-service, and spread internet access across the country in order to do so.

To achieve this, the government set up an investment group to build computer networking and infrastructure. By 1997, almost every school was connected to the internet, and by 2004, 300 wifi access points had been established, bringing the internet even to small villages—and mostly for free.

But this was just laying the groundwork. Estonia’s biggest turning point was 10 years ago, when the country came under sustained cyberattack.

In 2007, Estonia was in the middle of a political fight with Moscow over plans to remove a Soviet war memorial from a park in Tallinn. Suddenly, it was hit with three weeks of DDoS (designated denial-of-service) attacks. When this happens, multiple sources send multiple online requests, flooding a service or system and making it unable to function. It’s the digital equivalent of crowding an entrance to a building so that no one can come in or out.

As a result, the internet shut down as websites were bombarded with traffic. Russia denied any involvement, but Estonia didn’t believe it.

“War is the continuation of policy by other means,” Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid told a NATO cyber-conference in Tallinn in June 2017. “Ten years on, it is clear that the decision made by Estonia not to withdraw but stay and fight for the security of our cyberspace was indeed the right one.”

The attacks made Estonia more determined than ever to develop its digital economy and make it safe from future attacks. “I think every country should have a cyber war,” says Taavi Kotka, the government’s former chief information officer. “Citizens get knowledge about what an attack means, about how phishing works, how DDoS works, and they start to understand and live with that. People aren’t afraid if they know they can survive something. It’s the same thing as electricity going off: Okay, it’s an inconvenience, but you know how to deal with it.”

In Estonia, people are not afraid of cyber warfare, nor are they afraid of sharing personal data across public and private institutions. Go to a hospital, and the nurse or doctor can call up your entire health records from any doctor you ever visited without the need to call their offices and asking them to send files.

Full marks for convenience, simplicity, and efficiency. But what about the dangers of nameless bureaucrats accessing your personal data? Isn’t there a risk of future governments abusing the system and using your intimate details against you? Isn’t this inviting an Orwellian nightmare?

Estonia says no. Unlike an authoritarian state like the old Soviet Union, government transparency is built into the system. While all your private data is online, only you can give permission for any data to be accessed. And you can check who has accessed what. If a doctor you don’t know has viewed your records, it will be traceable, and you can have them sacked. As one software developer Quartz spoke to said, “You become your own Big Brother.”

Data is protected through a framework known as X-road, which helps exchange decentralized data between big government databases. X-road has built-in security measures that encrypt traffic and time-stamps so that the data cannot be manipulated. Taimar Peterkop, from Estonia’s Information System Authority, says that the security measures built into E-identity databases are all but impenetrable by outsiders. “Estonia takes data integrity very seriously because our society is so digitized,” he says. “If someone manipulates citizens’ data, that’s a challenge for us. We use blockchain-based technology to ensure the data is as it should be.”

When it comes to security, Peterkop says humans are usually the weak link. “Cybersecurity starts with us. If you have weak cyber hygiene, that’s a problem. We need to raise awareness and educate people about using strong authentication methods,” he says. For example, Estonia has public-education campaigns about how to use your smart devices wisely.

It seems like glaringly obvious advice, but a look at the recent U.S. election shows that basic cyber hygiene has been an after-thought, even for the powerful. When Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta’s Gmail account was hacked, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claimed Podesta’s password was simply the word “password.” The campaign denied this claim and said they fell victim to a phishing scam. Whatever the case, it was an avoidable security breach that should never have occurred.

Peterkop also says that consumers need to ask more questions about the Internet of Things, especially when it comes to everyday household products and devices. “There is so much pressure to come up with new products in a hurry, so security measures are an after-thought,” he says. “As consumers, it’s essential that we start paying attention to it. We don’t do enough risk mitigation. Basically every TV is a computer now.” These issues are present already: A recent document dump from Wikileaks points to hacking tools that directly relate to Samsung televisions.

Estonians don’t see cybersecurity as a phenomenon, and they know that good cyber hygiene isn’t just about strong passwords: It’s about being empowered by technology, not controlled by it.

Estonia’s steps have certainly been radical, and other countries can learn lessons from them about how to defend themselves. As well as creating a paperless public service, Estonia is now backing up government data on secure servers offsite in Luxembourg. It has also prioritized tougher international action for cyber-crime and encouraged private companies to review security measures and have stronger agreements with server providers.

The shock of a cyberwar united the community to take action. The challenge for other countries is to take action without one.

You can follow Brietta on Twitter. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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