Volunteer cyber corps to defend Estonia in wartime

Cyber Defense League will operate under unified military command

Estonia is looking for a few good geeks for its new cyber army. The tiny Baltic nation is creating a volunteer cadre of computer specialists to defend the country’s computer infrastructure.

Known as the Cyber Defense League, the unit will consist of computer scientists and engineers who would operate under a unified military command in wartime. The league is a part of Estonia’s Total Defense League, an all-volunteer paramilitary force that has national security missions.

Estonia has good reason to man its cyber ramparts — it is the first nation in history to come under a major cyber attack. In April and May 2007, rioting erupted in Tallinn, the nation’s capitol, when a memorial commemorating Soviet World War II dead was moved. The situation touched off unrest in Estonia’s ethnic Russian population and drew support in Russia. Street protests quickly moved to cyberspace.

In an interview with Signal Magazine in 2009, Lauri Almann, the former permanent undersecretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defense, recalled that the initial attacks blocked access to government websites, but successive waves affected banking, communications and online media as well. “It sounded like a science fiction move,” Almann recalled.

Blocking government communications was an effective tactic during the crisis, Almann noted. “If you cannot get your message out, you completely lose your focus. It is a very effective tool in psychological warfare,” he said. Estonia was especially vulnerable to a cyber attack because it is one of the most wired countries on the planet. The nation’s government and people rely heavily on Internet and wireless networks for much of their communications, banking and business transactions.

Although the attacks were traced to Russia, the exact nature of the attackers has never been determined, though groups of nationalist hackers have claimed credit. The Russian government maintains it had no part in the attacks, but the event has led to often tense relations between the NATO nation and its former occupier. NPR reported that in a speech in September 2010, Estonian defense minister Jaak Aaviksoo described the cyber attack as “a coordinated attempt to destabilize our government."

The Cyber Defense League is an attempt by Estonia to overcome this vulnerability. According to NPR, no democratic nation in the world has a force of this type, with civilian experts ready to work under government command to protect the national information technology infrastructure. Estonia is also home to NATO’s new Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, reflecting the alliance’s concern about future cyber attacks and conflict.  

Aaviksoo told NPR that a skilled cyber force is so important to Estonia’s national security that the government may even institute a draft to ensure an available pool of experts in a crisis. However, he added that this is currently only speculation as there are no laws or other mechanisms in place for a cyber draft.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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