Unknown cyber power: this is how Estonia became the third most powerful country in the world – and now the rest of Europe is taking action

It’s been 15 years since Estonia was hit by a crippling computer attack from Russia, in the so-called “First Web War”. In the years that followed, the small country of 1.3 million people focused on building a robust cybersecurity infrastructure. According to the Global Cyber ​​Security Index (GCI), they now have the third strongest firewall in the world, surpassed only by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

“We know our neighbor”

– When we started the procedures, we were asked why we put so much effort into them, because “Russia is no longer a threat.” I replied succinctly that “we know our neighbour”, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Klaas told the multilingual news agency Euronews.

Estonia has been under occupation twice, the last of which was under the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. Since then, the country has worked tirelessly to prevent this from happening again.

– After the fall of the Soviet Union, we saw signs that Russia was starting to move in the right direction, and we took the opportunity to join all the potential clubs that would welcome us, thus becoming a member of both NATO and the European Union, says Kallas.

Estonia was left with one of two options: stronger relations with the West or Russia, and elections in the West landed. Then came April 26, 2007.

A member of a pro-Russian youth organization in Estonia dressed up as a Soviet statue.  Behind him you see the bronze statue that was launched

A member of a pro-Russian youth organization in Estonia dressed up as a Soviet statue. Behind him you see the bronze statue that launched the First Web War. Photo: Alexey Sazonov/AFP/NTB

2007: “Web War One”

It all started with a bronze statue and a string of fake news.

In 1947, a bronze soldier statue was unveiled in the center of the Estonia capital Tallinn. For the Soviet Union, the statue symbolized the liberation of Tallinn, but for the people of Estonia, the statue was a tribute to the occupying power under which they had to live for decades.

In the spring of 2007, the statue was moved from the Soviet cemetery in the center of Tallinn to the outskirts of the city, and false news began to spread in the Russian media. “Estonian authorities vandalize Soviet war cemeteries”.

The false allegations sparked two days of demonstrations and riots in the Estonian capital. 150 people were injured and one person lost his life. The day after the uprising subsided, Estonia was hit by a series of computer attacks that lasted for several weeks and took the country’s banks, authorities and a number of media organizations into confiscation.

It remains uncertain exactly who was behind the all-out attack. The IP address was tracked in Russia, and the authorities deny having anything to do with it.

Experts called it ‘Web War One’ and it made us realize how vulnerable our digital society and the infrastructure we were developing were, says head of the Estonian Information Authority Luukas Ilves.

Russian fake news sparked demonstrations that cost someone his life.  Photo taken on April 27, 2007. Photo: Ints Kalnins / Reuters / NTB

Russian fake news sparked demonstrations that cost someone his life. The photo was taken on April 27, 2007. Photo: Ints Kalnins/Reuters/NTB

The third most powerful firewall in the world

From the ashes of the “Web One war” emerged one of the most powerful computer security systems in the world, which was largely developed by the talents of Estonian hackers and security experts. The backbone of the system is X-Road, a program that distributes information across a variety of platforms so that if one system gets hacked and fails to count, the other can immediately take over. A bit like equipping a building with a number of emergency exits, rather than just one.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a wave of uncertainty about Europe and the superpower’s closest neighbor. Finland and Sweden recently made a historic decision, renouncing neutrality and applying for NATO membership. Russia came out early and warned that the requests would have consequences.

– They should have no illusions that we will find ourselves only in this, warns the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

It is unlikely that Russia will respond militarily, as there is reason to fear computer attacks. In addition to Sweden and Finland, NATO countries, including Estonia, have reasons to be vigilant.

Russia can carry out attacks we’ve never seen before

The rest of Europe is working hard to secure itself against computer attacks. According to the European Council, sectors such as transport, health, energy and finance are most at risk. On May 13, the European Union announced measures to strengthen Europe’s firewall under a measure called “NIS2”. Member states are given a 21-month deadline to implement a number of measures to secure businesses and vulnerable sectors against computer attacks.

It is very likely that Russia, in the face of intensified Western sanctions, will be able to launch computer attacks unlike anything we have seen before. This could affect individual countries, Europe and the rest of the world, warns Ilves.

Estonia, a member of both the European Union and NATO, is participating in the recent European rearmament.

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