Why Estonia matters to us all

Published: May 31st, 2007

By: Sandford BorinsTuesday's New York Times contains a fascinating history of a cyberwar being fought for the past month in the digitally leading edge country of Estonia, renowned for conducting its cabinet meetings and elections online.The Estonian government's decision to remove a World War II-era statue of a Soviet soldier from a park in the capital of Tallinn led first to demonstrations by Estonians of Russian descent and then to online cyber-attacks, launched apparently by ethnic Russian hackers and/or Russian government sources.The Estonian government has now reinforced its firewalls and the attacks have abated, but this episode suggests three important lessons.First, it is deeply ironic that, while the nature of the warfare is at the technological forefront, the issues involved are ancient. Warfare between ethnic, linguistic, racial, or religious groups goes back to the dawn of humanity.The question of who will write history and who will erect statues in memory of whom – the contestability of history – goes back to the time humans began recording history. How little moral, as opposed to technological, progress we have made.Second, IT has now become critical societal infrastructure, and protecting it is a basic responsibility of government, an observation made by Sean Stephens in our first digital state conference.The Ontario government learned this lesson when the Blaster worm overwhelmed its computers a few days after the August 14, 2003, power outage (discussed in Digital State at the Leading Edge, pp. 95-6). Computer security operations are expensive and, by definition, covert, but they are also essential to society.Third, the Estonian experience reveals the balance of power in cyberspace.When the American government created the Internet, it conceived of a vast multi-nodal network that could survive attacks at many nodes. Unlike the U.S., Estonia is a small country with relatively few nodes. In repelling the attacks, the Estonian government used its own considerable expertise, as well as assistance from Finland, Germany, Slovenia, the U.S., and Israel, among other countries.Defence of critical IT infrastructure is not only a national priority, but also a global one.

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