General Jonathan Shaw, head of Britain’s Defence Cyber Security Programme from 2011 until 2012, says UK should follow Estonia’s example
Estonia has recruited a “ponytail army” of volunteer computer experts who stand ready to defend the nation against cyber attack.
The country’s reserve force, the Estonian Defence League, has a Cyber Unit consisting of hundreds of civilian volunteers, including teachers, lawyers and economists.
The Baltic nation of 1.3 million people is one of the most technologically advanced in the world: almost every banking transaction takes place online and 30 per cent of all votes in the last general election were cast electronically.
But this also makes Estonia acutely vulnerable . In 2007, the country suffered one of the biggest cyber attacks in history when the websites of banks, government ministries and the national parliament were swamped with data.
Responsibility for this assault was never established, but the finger of suspicion pointed towards neighbouring Russia . The trigger for the event was a controversial decision to relocate a Soviet war memorial in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.
If an emergency of this kind were to recur, Estonia’s cyber defenders would be mobilised. “We call them guys with ponytails – but we don’t all have ponytails,” said Tanel Tetlov, a 33-year-old volunteer member of the Cyber Unit.
“The worst part of being a defender is you never know where the attacker is going to hit you,” added Mr Tetlov. “He can choose a clear strike, but you have to defend every door and window.”
The methods of cyber warfare are constantly changing. One common form of attack is a “distributed denial of service”- known as a “D-DOS” – whereby a server is jammed with cascades of data. This can paralyse vital websites, including those handling financial transactions.
Most of the cyber assaults on Estonia in 2007 fell into this category. Today, “D-DOS” incidents are regarded as one of the less sophisticated forms of attack. Criminal gangs or even individuals are capable of launching them.
As a volunteer, Mr Tetlov has helped to fend off dozens of “D-DOS” events. The danger is that a hostile state could employ them as a diversionary tactic. “You could use it as a pawn, as the first move in the game,” said Mr Tetlov. “It could be a diversion to turn your attention elsewhere while they are doing something more damaging.”
Thwarting a cyber attack of this kind starts with identifying where the flood of data is coming from. Once that has been established, the relevant network can be isolated.
This takes expertise and manpower. Governments often find it difficult to employ people with the required skills because they command high salaries in the private sector. Estonia’s solution is to have a pool of civilian volunteers available in an emergency.
General Jonathan Shaw, who was head of Britain’s Defence Cyber Security Programme from 2011 until 2012, said the UK should follow Estonia’s example.
“We need a cyber reserve and that reserve should be largely civilian,” said Gen Shaw. “Don’t think camouflage, short-back-and-sides and weapons training. It’s ponytails, earrings and thick spectacles – that’s what we need.”
Estonia’s Cyber Unit has a permanent staff of just three people, based in a building in Tallinn once used by Soviet Signals Intelligence. In his office, Andrus Padar, the commander of the unit, organises volunteers and monitors the continuous round of cyber attacks across the world.
One website tracks these events in real time, identifying – so far as possible – the origins and targets of the assaults. The same countries tend to appear: America, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.
Cyber warfare gives hostile states the ability to damage their foes covertly and deniably. A full scale offensive might destroy power systems, paralyse financial transactions and freeze essential services – all without the culprit being known.
“What will happen for the next three weeks if you cannot use your credit card or your bank card?” asked Mr Padar. “You can’t buy food or gas – then life will stop.”
The exact number of volunteers who would try to save Estonia from this fate is classified, but Mr Padar said that about 1 per cent of all the country’s information technology experts had joined the Cyber Unit.
He added: “Cyber war is a little bit close to a nuclear war: you are talking about critical services being removed.”
This article was written by David Blair Tallinn from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.