On April 13, 2019, former Estonian President Toomas Ilves addressed the vulnerabilities of democracy in the digital age before a standing room only crowd at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Mr. Ilves described in great detail how nearly all of the western democratic countries have been, in varying degrees, digitally attacked by totalitarian governments such as Russia, China, Iran, and even Venezuela.
Ilves stated that totalitarian governments like Russia no longer need to physically attack or commit resources to start a war. Merely influencing elections and causing turbulence in a democratic system results in sufficient political fallout to further their aims. Also in their favor – the very system of laws that western democracies strive to uphold actually protect Russian oligarchs who have transferred their illicit funds for safe keeping in western banks. Totalitarian governments only need to influence unsuspecting voters to elect ineffective or disruptive leaders, which has already happened – and will continue to happen – throughout the west.
Another contributing factor is the immediate spread of misleading information facilitated by online media sources. A reasonable person or news agency no longer has time to determine the validity and accuracy of reported information. Egregious comments by a Russia-friendly candidate such as Marine Le Pen get far more clicks than a considered policy discussion on taxes by Prime Minister Merkel. Other new digital attack vectors include doxing (creation of false documents), bots (digital robots that immediately forward millions of bits of false information), and increasingly sophisticated methods of creating deep fake videos.
Western nations are currently behind in developing deterrence methods as their non-governmental organizations (NGOs) only monitor the activities. Financial resources must be committed to develop a proper deterrence in order to combat such intrusion into our political system. The U.S. is re-investing in its Cyber-security and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), while Canada is undergoing similar efforts. Estonia has been leading the way as one of the foremost experienced countries in internet operations and protection.
According to Ilves, the good news is that methods of deterrence can be put in place. Individuals must connect with their Members of Congress to share concerns and call for significant investment in cyber security. Cybersecurity is a national security concern for citizens of the U.S. as well as for NATO and its allies.
The University of Toronto event took place as the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) annual cyber defense exercise Locked Shields was drawing to a close. According to the Centre’s website, it is “the largest and most complex international live-fire cyber defence exercise in the world… [and] provides the participants the best training environment to get better in defending their nations’ networks.” The CCDCOE has hosted the exercise in Tallinn since 2010.
This year’s exercise brought together over 1000 participants from 30 nations and simulated more than 2500 attacks on 4000 virtualized systems. Defense force and national security entities from Estonia, the U.S., Finland and the Republic of Korea, along with industry partners including Siemens AG, Cisco, Cybernetica, Elisa, and many others, cooperated in organizing the event.
The exercise highlights the need for nations to pay more attention to their vulnerabilities and invest in deterrence, education and countermeasure capabilities. Educating the public and raising awareness in western governments are critical to getting ahead of the threat. The national security of the U.S., Estonia, and beyond depends on coherent policies and cooperation. Full funding and implementation of CISA and supporting agencies is key to overcoming the cybersecurity challenge. EANC advocates in Congress on these issues regularly and echoes to the Estonian American community the call by President Ilves to contact their Senators and Representatives and share their concerns on this issue.
Washington, DC Director
Estonian American National Council