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How Estonians became pioneering cyberdefenders

Three hundred cybersecurity experts are in Estonia this week for an international conference on cyberconflict. They want to know what Estonians know.

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Attacks on the rise

Since 2007, cyberattacks have become fiercer and more frequent. Most attacks have been the work of what Mikko Hyppönen of F-Secure Corporation in Helsinki, calls "gangs of hackers."

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But Stuxnet, the computer worm that successfully hit a nuclear reactor in Iran last summer, was the closest thing to an actual act of cyberwar. It appeared to be the first time a computer virus, which was so sophisticated that experts agree it could only have been backed by a government, struck a specific target in another state that was beyond the confines of the Internet.

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"Stuxnet was the absolute game changer," says Mr. Hyppönen. "We are entering an arms race where countries start stocking weapons, only it isn’t planes and nuclear reactors they’re stocking but it’s cyberweapons."

"When it comes to cyberwar, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when," says Eneken Tikk, head of legal and policy affairs at the NATO cyberdefense center.

"It is becoming a trend. Technologically advanced countries have to count with the fact that politically sensitive decisions will result in cyberattacks," says Ms. Tikk. "We’re talking about cyber as a reaction base to whatever happens in society, using cyber means to send a message to governments."

A call for collaboration

One crucial part of the solution to many is additional public-private cooperation on cyberdefense.

"If the basis of our relative economic success, our private sector is coming under attack from state actors, we have to come up with new ways of talking to and sharing with the private sector,’ said President Ilves. "This of course will run against the grain of how we have been doing things. Yet we need to address the problem."

Erik Laykin, a Los Angeles-based legal expert specializing in cybercrime, agreed and called for the US to start its own volunteer cyberarmy.

"Today, the battleground is your cell phone, your PC, your iPad, and this is why it is fundamentally a job of both the government and the citizens of a nation to develop a framework and response to cyberthreats," says Mr. Laykin. "Estonia is telling its people, 'You have a role to play in cyberdefense ... at stake is to protect your way of life, because a country’s critical infrastructure is the fundamental that supports this way of life.' "

Since winning independence in 1991 again after 50 years of Soviet occupation, Estonia took to the Internet faster than its European neighbors. Embracing high-tech was a way to catch up to the West, says Linnar Viik, rector of the Estonia IT College in Tallinn.

"The Internet and IT infrastructure is a way of life, and this way of life and the values of this society aren't controlled by ministries of defense but are supported by culture, education, the economy," says Mr. Viik. "If the Internet stops working, society looses much of its functionality."

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