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April 5, 2011

The Cyber Defense League comprises nearly 100 soldiers ready to defend Estonian networks. It is now fully part of the Estonian military command structure, and can be summoned at a moments notice.

Estonian Cyber Defense League
The Estonian Cyber Defense League began this yearImage: Tanel Rütman

Estonia, often referred to as "E-stonia," is one of the most connected nations of the planet - it's a place where three quarters of the population use the Internet and nearly all of the 1.3 million people pay their taxes online.

The tiny Baltic country was not only the first in the world to enable its citizens to vote online – and as of earlier this year, it now it has its own wired troops too.

The new Cyber Defense League was created in response to massive cyberattacks that Estonia sustained four years ago this month. In April 2007, dozens of Estonian financial, media and government websites were rendered unusable for nearly two weeks.

The attacks, whose organizers were never found, were believed to have come from Russia, in retaliation for the moving of a Soviet-era statue in the capital, Tallinn.

While Estonia’s existing Cyber Emergency Response Team, or CERT, was widely praised for having dealt with the problem so quickly, discussions arose as to how to engage other non-government employees as to how to best deal with future attacks - and the Cyber Defence League was born.

Bronze Soldier statue
Estonia sustained a massive cyberattack in the wake of this statue's removalImage: AP

"It integrates first and foremost people who are in their professional lives also active in cyber-security, cyber-defence, IT organisation in different private as well as public institutions," said Jaak Aaviksoo, Estonia's Defense Minister, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

The Cyber Defense League's soldiers have day jobs working IT in banks and Estonian hotels, as well as within various government agencies.

"The important thing is that we more or less cover all critical infrastructures in Estonia," Aaviksoo said. "So in the case of need we can very fast and effective not only mobilize, but use people who know each other because in cyber and in modern society the mutual trust is a very important component."

Part of traditional Estonian paramilitary force

The Cyber Defense League is a regular unit of the Defense League – a voluntary military non-governmental national defense organisation with over 12,000 members. Defense League headquarters is responsible for sounding the alarm to mobilize the CDL in case of emergency.

The Cyber Defense League has its own commander, sub-unit commanders, chiefs of staff and other ranks. All the 94 soldiers, aged between 22 and 52 are divided into two sub-units – 48 of them are located in the capital Tallinn and the remaining 46 in Tartu, Estonia's second city.

Cyber ​​Defense League meeting
The Cyber ​​Defense League currently has 100 soldiersImage: Tanel Rütman

Just like the real soldiers, the cyber-unit has its own war games, too. The only difference between the two is that the Cyber Defense League holds its military training exercises online.

"The unit comes together in some big place, they put their internal network on and they connect them to the Internet, of course," explained Major Neeme Brus, the Estonian Defense League's spokesperson. "They create working places and then it goes on."

Although Brus declined to explain the war games in detail, he did say that CDL soldiers have to deal with a potential cyber threat during the war games and once the training is over the cyber-unit analyzes the results.

A tradition of cyber-defense

The cyber-assaults of 2007 also prompted NATO to set up the world's first Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn - it aims to strengthen the alliance’s cyber-defense capability. Since the opening in 2008, the centre has become a think-tank for cyber-defense policy.

The CCDCOE was founded in 2007Image: Matthias von Hein

CCDCOE officials hope that the new CDL will play an important role if similar attacks like in 2007 happen in the future. That’s because the government currently doesn’t have access to residential or private corporate networks and the volunteer soldiers will be able to report about the attacks they are seeing online.

"If all of the sudden your ability to access cyberspace is taken away, well, it would be nice to be able to inform the government of that," said Kenneth Geers, an American researcher at the CCDCOE, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

"And there is really no other way for the government to know about it unless you have a cyber-savvy, well-informed population that has the ability to communicate with cyber defense even within government."

Author: Ģederts Ģelzis, Tallinn
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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