Tiny Estonia might seem an unlikely place to see the future of technology. With just 1.3 million people, the country has fewer people than San Diego and is just three decades removed from Soviet rule. But “E-stonia,” as its known, has also brought the world Skype as well as up-and-coming startups like robotics firm Starship Technologies and payments provider TransferWise. Yet Estonia’s technology prowess has also made it something of a laboratory for the dangers of the threats posed by hackers backed by neighboring Russia. In a country where 90 percent use online banking, 95 percent file taxes online and 30 percent cast their ballots from a computer, Estonia is a target-rich environment for cyberattacks. Indeed the NATO-member country is the site of what may have been the world’s first politically-motivated digital attack in 2007. In that year, Estonia angered Russia by relocating a World War II era memorial to Soviet troops. Soon, the networks of government ministries, banks and leading Estonian newspapers went down, the result of a massive and sophisticated botnet attack.
“Everyone thinks or agrees that they were organized or orchestrated by Russia, but no hard evidence has been presented as far as I know,” says Holger Roonemaa, a journalist with the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism and a former editor at Eesti Päevaleht, one of the country’s leading newspapers.
In hindsight, those decade-old attacks were a precursor for Russian cyberattacks in Ukraine, the U.S. and France in recent years. Roonemaa, who has covered the issue extensively, spoke with Global Journalist’s Maria Callejon about how a country dubbed the “most-wired country in Europe” is trying to head off potential future attacks, including efforts to derail its 2019 parliamentary elections.