Air Force airmen at Barksdale Air Force Base update anti-virus software for units to assist in the prevention of cyberspace hackers.

Air Force airmen at Barksdale Air Force Base update anti-virus software for units to assist in the prevention of cyberspace hackers. U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo

Who Defends the Virtual Countries of Tomorrow?

Here’s why Estonia is the new frontline in the cyberwar of the future. By Patrick Tucker

Does a virtual country still need real military protection? And if so, who provides it? Short answer: Yes, and the United States.

President Barack Obama made a visit to Estonia on Wednesday where he praised the country’s government in unsubtle terms as a core NATO ally. “As a high-tech leader, Estonia is also playing a leading role in protecting NATO from cyber threats,” he said. “Estonia is an example of how every NATO member needs to do its fair share for our collective defense.” 

Estonia serves as the host of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. In many ways, it’s NATO’s cyber tip of the spear in Europe. It’s also a world leader in e-governance. Citizens have unprecedented access to health, education, and government services online and can even exercise their right to vote digitally. But it’s also becoming a country within a country.

In May, the government of Estonia announced the launch of a “digital country” initiative. Beginning next year, the country will allow anyone who can pass a quick  background and identity check at an Estonian Embassy to become a digital citizen of Estonia and get an ID card. Estonia’s future e-citizens can open bank accounts, start online business headquartered there, pay taxes online or reinvest in the country tax free. It could be a model revenue-generating scheme for countries all around the world. More importantly, it could significantly increase Estonia’s geopolitical clout.

Siim Sikkut, a government policy advisor in charge of the new e-citizen effort, believes that the number of virtual citizens could top ten million by 2025, a huge increase over the roughly country’s current 1.3 million person population.

Here’s why virtual countries, and digital citizens, matter to U.S. security: a country with an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Russia is about to grow its cyber profile by a factor of more than seven and they’ll be looking to the United States for protection.

At least, that’s what history suggests. In 2007, Estonia was the victim of one of the most famous coordinated cyber attacks in history following a dispute about the placement of a controversial World War II memorial. It was a small spat over a bronze statue dedicated to the Red Army soldiers who fought to liberate Tallinn from German control. But it was also an argument with big consequences.

Russian-aligned hackers, which many believed were acting under orders from the Kremlin, launched distributed denial of service or DDOS attacks affecting government and media outlets. The impact, for a country that’s highly reliant on the Internet, was surprising.

As The Economist described it in 2007: “Even at their crudest, the assaults broke new ground. For the first time, a state faced a frontal, anonymous attack that swamped the websites of banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters; that hobbled Estonia's efforts to make its case abroad.”

Very quickly, a country that was a pioneer in providing e-services to its people became a cautionary tale not to mess with Russia. Estonia’s government responded quickly.

“In cyber-security, Estonia learned hard lessons in the 2007 massive, foreign controlled denial of service attack on virtually all its internet based systems after the transfer of a Soviet military statue from central Tallinn to a military cemetery,” Michael Polt, former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, told Defense One. “Since then, Estonia has dedicated itself in a public-private partnership to gain the highest possible cyber-security standard for itself, as well as advocating the same for its friends and allies, especially in NATO. Estonia is better prepared for and more aware of cyber threats than most counties.”

Other experts agreed. Robert Lenz, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber, Identity and Information Assurance and current president of the firm Cyber Security Strategies, called Estonia a recognized leader in cyber security.

Today, Estonia allocates 40 million euros to cyber security every year, about .5% of the country’s annual spending. But being a leader in cyber security doesn’t fully inure a country to cyber attacks or cyber warfare. More online activity means more targets and potential vulnerabilities. That matters to the United States, which played a big role in Estonia’s response to the 2007 assault. “The U.S. forces in Europe (European Command) was (sic) given the task to provide personnel and technical assistance, which eventually led to Estonia becoming a center of cyber collaboration,” Lenz said.

In 2010, the FBI assigned a cyber investigator to work with the Estonian National Criminal Police on cyber crime matters full time. Estonian and American Computer Emergency Readiness Teams (CERTs) plan and strategize together in response to threats and attacks. “I was in regular contact with the Estonia Defense Minister over many years and he took a personal interest in pushing cyber security as well as engaging Silicon Valley to seek innovation,” said Lenz, who, while praising the collaborative effort, also acknowledged that hostility from the East seemed to be rising. “Regarding cyber threats, the fact that Estonia is on the doorsteps of probably the most technically sophisticated adversaries (hackers, cyber criminals and nation state) makes their mission very difficult,” he said.

When asked if the U.S. would have some involvement in securing the cyber activities of e-citizens, Lenz replied yes. “Clearly the increased cooperation between CERTs, research organizations, academia is leading to a more secure Internet although we have a very long way to go. The human resource part is really the biggest gap which is why I am pushing for increased high end training, to include the use of advanced cyber ranges.”

Polt agrees. He said the already strong cooperation between U.S. and Estonian security forces “would be even stronger if our Estonian friends had their way. The challenge for Estonia in its collaboration with the U.S. has always been to get our full attention, given our countries’ size disparities.” The addition of as many as 10 million e-citizens, many of whom will remain real citizens of the United States, will likely change that calculus.

“We would do well to take Estonian efforts in the cyber field seriously and look to upscale possibilities of Estonia’s internet-based governance, business and consumer focused infrastructure,” Polt added.

The events currently playing out in Ukraine have put that collaboration back in focus. The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence suffered a DDoS attack in March, just as the tensions of disputed area of Crimea reached a major turning point. The shadowy pro-Russian group Cyber Berkut, which many believe to be aligned with the Russian government, took credit. The attack had a mere cosmetic effect and the website was back up quickly, but it was no small PR smudge for an institution with “cyber” and “excellence” in its title.

The rising geopolitical tensions have not gone unnoticed in Estonia. “Of course we see some escalations … we see tensions escalate in our neighborhood,” said Sikkut. “But it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before.”

The responsibility of helping Estonia fight off cyber threats, if they continue to escalate, could fall to U.S. Cyber Command. With a $500 million annual budget, Cyber Command presides over the NSA. Europen governments in the future might be asking the NSA for assistance, which would mark the biggest ironic reversal since the end of Romeo and Juliet. As virtual countries grow, and tensions between NATO members and Russia rise, so do the stakes of cyber warfare as well as the likelihood of greater U.S. involvement.

“With their digital IDs, Estonians can use their smart phones to get just about anything done online -- from their children’s grades to their health records. I should have called the Estonians when we were setting up our health care website,” Obama joked on Wednesday. Perhaps he’ll be receiving a call from them sooner than he thinks.