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Nordic countries deepen collaboration with Estonia-based cyber security operation

Nordic countries are now working closer with Nato’s Estonia-based centre of excellence in cyber security

The Nordic countries are deepening their commitment to Nato’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence against a backdrop of an elevated level of threat from hostile actors in cyber space.

Leading Nordic technology groups, including Tieto and VTT, are also stepping up cyber security collaborations with the Tallinn, Estonia-based centre, which carries out training and exercises covering technology, strategy, operations and law.  

Nordic collaboration with the centre of excellence increased when Denmark and Norway, Nato member states, became so-called “sponsoring nations”. Finland and Sweden had earlier achieved contributing participant status in the Estonia-based organisation.

The defence centre’s roll-call of sponsoring member nations already includes Nato members France, Germany, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey and the US.

The increased Nordic participation consolidates the centre’s status as the largest of the 25 Nato-accredited centres of excellence. And its partner base is primed to expand further and assume a more diverse geographic spread, once Japan, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Australia join in 2019-2021.

“We started with seven founding members 11 years ago to become a 25-nation cyber defence hub with prominent world-renowned flagships,” said Jaak Tarien, director of the centre of excellence. “Nations want to join our expert community. This demonstrates that when it comes to cyber defence, cooperation among like-minded countries has become inevitable.”

Increasing technological development and global connectivity has raised the centre’s international profile as a leading generator of both defensive and offensive strategies and solutions to counter a wide range of cyber threats. Its growing partner base reflects interest among countries, especially in Europe, to actively contribute to the advancement of cyber defences.

“We must be ready to deal with any type of cyber threat and bring our capabilities up to date,” said Tarien. “Tackling the cyber threats facing our democracies demands expert knowledge and skills. These are reinforced by close cooperation between allies and partners.”

The organisation is currently hiring more experts in disciplines such as data analysis, research and training, with a mix of skills from military, government and industry backgrounds. Closer interaction with private industry has added a greater dynamic to its activities.

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The operation’s growing relationship with Nordic, Estonian and international private-sector IT companies and security experts is underscored by the annual Locked Shields event, one of the world’s largest and most complex technical cyber defence exercises.

Apart from input from Nato-partner organisations, the exercise has more than 60 industry sponsors and partners, among them Siemens, Elisa, Cybernetica, VTT Technical Research Centre Finland, Iptron and Cisco.

The focal point of Locked Shields’ latest exercise was some 4,000 virtualised systems subjected to more than 2,500 cyber attacks. The challenge facing participating nation teams was to enact the entire chain of command in the event of a severe cyber incident involving both civilian and military players.

Reflecting real-world cyber threats, the Locked Shields exercise prioritised the protection of vital services and critical infrastructure.

As well as maintaining more than 150 complex IT systems per team, the participating countries were required to deploy time-efficient solutions to report incidents, execute strategic decisions and solve forensic, legal and media challenges. The exercise also highlighted the growing need to enhance dialogue between technical experts, civil and military participants and decision-making levels.

The centre of excellence conducts further relationship-building with private-sector IT and cyber security professionals through international conferences and workshops. These include the influential annual CyCon event, which attracted more than 645 experts from 47 countries and five continents when it was held in May.

Landmark event

CyCon 2019 saw a landmark event, when Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, declared that international law must also apply in the cyber domain.

The position advanced by Estonia, and supported by a growing number of Nato members, is that states have a right to engage in “collective countermeasures” subject to existing domestic and international law, to protect their sovereignty against cyber threats and attacks.

“Among other options for collective response, Estonia is furthering the position that states which are not directly injured [by a cyber attack] may apply countermeasures to support the state directly affected by the malicious cyber operation,” said Kaljulaid.

Estonia’s position mirrors policy initiatives undertaken by Nato to extend Article 5 of the alliance’s charter, which covers collective defence against attack. Nato made cyber defence a core part of its collective defence in 2014, declaring that a cyber attack could lead to the invocation of Article 5.

Nato’s position was reinforced in its Vision and strategy on cyber space as a domain of operations policy document in 2018. The alliance is currently working on the launch, by 2020, of a cyber space operations doctrine that will provide guidance to Nato commanders.

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