Su, 1.10.2023

Estonia’s cyber reputation owed to Putin

Mari Mets
, reporter
Photo: Liis Treimann

Former deputy secretary general in charge of internal security at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, current head of the corresponding institute of the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences (SKA) Erkki Koort says that Estonia’s cyber image owes the most to presidents Vladimir Putin and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the latter as Estonia’s number one e- salesman.

“Had Putin not attacked us in 2007 and had we not successfully parried that attack, the world at large would now virtually nothing of digital Estonia,” Koort said with conviction.

Former interior minister, Hanno Pevkur MP (Reform Party) also recalls the most important milestone in Estonia’s digital history. “We processed cell phone data to ensure national security during the April unrest in 2007; it was absolutely necessary. I cannot imagine the state not having the means to ensure security because its hands are tied in moments like these,” he said.

This digital success means that we are expected to lead the way in the cyberworld, but this expectation is difficult to cater to as Estonia’s daily cyber struggle is mainly with ad-hoc solutions: there are fragments – isolated successes in different agencies – but there are no future-oriented research groups that could turn these experiences into future know-how. Urgent applications get made after which it is back to business as usual.

We are standing still in terms of internal security. Koort says that the same problems are reopened time and again as rulers change and knowledge is lost. “We are careful not to deviate from our common foreign policy course, but where is that course in internal security?” he asks.

Invasion of privacy

To find out, Koort, who is one possible candidate for the position of SKA rector, wants to create a new institute to analyze our security agencies’ cyber applications and digital tricks and think about how to empower the Baltic digital tiger and take it to the masses. All to fight crime: terrorism, radicalization, money laundering, violence and malicious propaganda.

He believes it is important to hold a debate for the increasingly delicate question of where to draw the red line between privacy and making the state’s work easier by allowing it to analyze masses of cell phone data. Koort finds that relevant dilemmas have not been discussed in Estonian society and provide more than enough food for scientific papers his academy of 900 students could handle.

Koort is worried that even though isolated security studies have been carried out at the academy, they have largely been based on enthusiasm. They are the fruit of enthusiasts’ labor that have attracted other enthusiasts. These debates will die down together with enthusiasm at one point.

For the purpose of piecing together chunks of wisdom from different agencies, SKA would involve everyone with ties to the school and who face similar problems: police officers, tax and customs agents, the alarm center, prisons, internal security agency, ministries.

Recent SKA rector, Minister of the Interior Katri Raik (SDE) cools Koort’s heels but finds that the academy would be the place for such research. “I do not think a new institute is required for this as these topics should be handled by the internal security institute in which a center for pursuing such research should be created,” Raik said.

She said that it would not be a new defense studies center and that topics for research groups would have to correspond to priorities in the internal security development plan instead of remaining on the level of intellectually stimulating academic debate.

Koort is candid in saying that it is good to talk about these things on the eve of elections as one might hope investments into studying internal security make it to the new coalition agreement in spring. Koort’s price tag is a few million euros inside ten years – considering promises to boost research funding. He says that first and foremost Estonia needs the desire for new knowledge.

Katri Raik says that SKA has already hired a research fellow to head a group and is in the process of hiring another. It could be possible to form a group at the end of the year. The first topics are tied to use of big data, radicalization and cybersecurity. “The plan is 80 percent there,” she said.

Use of cell phone data in internal security is being fiercely contested by several attorneys as Estonia’s data processing practice has been far more liberal than the European Court of Justice believes it should be.

Head-on collisions in intelligence

Koort, who has worked for the Estonian Internal Security Center, finds that private companies – Facebook, Google, telecom giants – are collecting a lot of information on people that could help make policework easier. “Why do things the hard way when you can do them the easy way?” he asks. “We are no longer operating just in the physical world, which is why it is important for the state to use new technological possibilities.”

One of his biggest critics, sworn lawyer Carri Ginter, finds that the state is already using far more cell data than is admissible for ensuring privacy. “It is just convenient,” he says.

Ginter says that the European Court of Justice has said the data can only be collected for billing purposes. “ISPs can only be required to reveal to whom a call was placed and where in case of serious crimes. Petty theft or civil matters definitely do not qualify as severe crime or terrorism.”