A former Tsarist army barracks in the Estonian capital Tallinn may seem an unlikely base for honing the West’s response to the newest strategic threat: cyber warfare.
But behind the thick, bare-brick walls, cyber warfare specialists from eight NATO countries, including the US and Estonia’s neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, are working to protect the critical infrastructure systems on which we all rely, from water and electricity to internet connectivity, from disruption and attack.
After the cyber attacks of 2007 that disabled this small Baltic nation’s banking system and brought down several government websites, Tallinn was the obvious choice to locate the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE), which is accredited by NATO as an International Military Organisation.
This week the CCDCOE is hosting a major international conference on Cyber Conflict, attended by Monocle, which is bringing together dozens of international experts in cyber warfare and cyber security, including government defence officials of NATO member states, military research scientists and international lawyers trying to draw up a legal framework for cyber warfare to “pen-test” specialists, internet security experts who are hired by companies to break into their networks to reveal network security flaws. They almost always succeed.
The 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia were a wake-up call for the West, Jaak Aaviksoo, Estonia’s minister of defence, told Monocle. “That was a ringing of the bell, that cyber security is not limited to individuals, or to commerce or industry but is a national security issue. We learnt that networked offence must have a networked defence, and that the world is smaller than we think, and global cooperation in all aspects is important.”
Arguably, the cyber attacks have ultimately proved more of a benefit than a liability to Estonia. Estonia has long been a pioneer in using the internet in commerce and government, and is one of the most wired countries in the world. But the asymmetric nature of cyber warfare showed that deep connectivity can also mean deep vulnerability. Its defence specialists had long been planning a cyber warfare centre before 2007. Now, thanks to the CCDCOE, Estonia is now firmly on the map as a resource centre for the conflicts of the future.
“We wanted to work out what kind of added value we could give to the alliance. Estonia is not a small country, it is a very small country and we have to be very focused. Luckily we picked up the idea of cyber defence and later in 2007 that proved to be a very wise choice,” says Aaviksoo.
“The fight of the 21st century is for brains. If you can occupy a cubic centimetre of your opponent’s brain that is a much stronger asset than killing him. For example, think about the voters in Afghanistan, Birmingham, Chicago or Tallinn. Why do they say what they say or think what they think about events? How have we managed to move from global disgust about 9-11 to conceptual deadlock about Afghanistan? It’s about thinking patterns. The more we communicate, the more we pick up new ideas and news in this virtual reality, the more important it gets.”
In the conflicts of the future, say cyber warfare experts, computer code will be the deadliest weapon.