NATO’s Baltic Outpost Digging Cyber Trenches for EuropeBy
Estonia to conduct exercise during six-month presidency of EU
Threat isn’t ‘science fiction,’ minister says in interview
NATO’s Baltic outpost is gearing up to test decision-making among European Union defense ministers during a simulated cyber assault.
Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million people that borders Russia and is home to NATO’s cyber-defense center, will host the exercise during its six-month presidency of the European Union, which starts July 1, Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna said in an interview. The country is no stranger to electronic attacks, having significantly bolstered security measures after strikes on key websites during a spat with Russia, he said.
“While we need to develop cyber-capabilities, what’s equally important is constant practice,” Tsahkna, 39, said Wednesday in his office in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. Decision-makers need to “develop a joint understanding and awareness of issues and of how to act on the highest political level if something happens.”
Traditional military tactics are increasingly being augmented by computer threats, with cyber warfare coming to the fore when American intelligence services accused Russia of hacking the U.S. presidential election. That’s led to fears that ballots this year in France and Germany could also be at risk. Estonia, a high-tech hub whose engineers helped invent Skype Inc., has previously served as the venue for drills on dealing with terrorist attacks.
The Baltic nation, an EU and NATO member since 2004, was repeatedly subjected to massive distributed denial of service attacks 10 years ago that overloaded many government, media and banking websites, leaving them disabled for hours. Then-President Toomas Hendrik Ilves blamed the Kremlin, which denied involvement. The assault followed riots over the relocation of a World War II memorial in Tallinn.
Nearby nations including Lithuania and Ukraine have complained of similar attacks. Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said Tuesday that hackers, possibly working for a foreign state, breached the e-mail accounts of dozens of employees of the Foreign Ministry in a foray akin to that conducted against the U.S. Democratic Party. No classified data was stolen.
Estonia’s defense forces will also create a separate cyber command, as NATO’s decisions at last year’s summit mean its members have to develop “everything, starting from cyber doctrines to real capabilities,” Tsahkna said. Estonia is already “ahead of many others" in engaging the civilian side by having created a cyber-defense unit of the voluntary paramilitary Defense League, he said.
“One thing is spying operations, the other is attempts to affect societies,” Tsahkna said. “We see it on a rather wide spectrum today, up to affecting U.S. elections. This is already a very practical topic, a daily activity, not science fiction.”