In just over two decades, Estonia has become one of the world’s most digitally innovative and efficient countries. In fact, Estonians conduct all their civic responsibilities online. Offices and paper forms have become obsolete as state-issued digital identities allow all citizens to carry out any financial or government transaction from their laptops or cellphones. And that gives them an edge when it comes to cybersecurity.
Estonia’s journey down the digital road has been astonishingly fast. When it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it had almost no money and few natural resources. But it did have one advantage: It was the designated center for software and computer production for the USSR. After achieving independence, the country had a pool of tech expertise for them to build on.
During these early years of independence, Estonia needed to create the means for a new economy. And it wasn’t going to be easy. The country’s tiny population of just 1.3 million is spread over a relatively vast countryside. Outside the capital Tallinn, there’s an average of just four people per square kilometer. The new government didn’t have the resources to extend government offices or banking facilities to small towns and villages, so it decided to encourage self-service, and spread internet access across the country in order to do so.
To achieve this, the government set up an investment group to build computer networking and infrastructure. By 1997, almost every school was connected to the internet, and by 2004, 300 wifi access points had been established, bringing the internet even to small villages—and mostly for free.
But this was just laying the groundwork. Estonia’s biggest turning point was 10 years ago, when the country came under sustained cyberattack.
In 2007, Estonia was in the middle of a political fight with Moscow over plans to remove a Soviet war memorial from a park in Tallinn. Suddenly, it was hit with three weeks of D-DoS (distributed denial of service) attacks. When this happens, multiple sources send multiple online requests, flooding a service or system and making it unable to function. It’s the digital equivalent of crowding an entrance to a building so that no one can come in or out.
As a result, the internet shut down as websites were bombarded with traffic. Russia denied any involvement, but Estonia didn’t believe it.
“War is the continuation of policy by other means,” Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid told a NATO cyber-conference in Tallinn in June 2017. “Ten years on, it is clear that the decision made by Estonia not to withdraw but stay and fight for the security of our cyberspace was indeed the right one.”
The attacks made Estonia more determined than ever to develop its digital economy and make it safe from future attacks. “I think every country should have a cyber war,” says Taavi Kotka, the government’s former chief information officer. “Citizens get knowledge about what an attack means, about how phishing works, how D-DoS works, and they start to understand and live with that. People aren’t afraid if they know they can survive something. It’s the same thing as electricity going off: Okay, it’s an inconvenience, but you know how to deal with it.”