Benedict Churchus reflects on the lessons the UK can learn from Estonia's investment in national cyberinfrastructure and digital initiatives for its people.
The government last month committed to £16.5 bn for the defence services over the next four years. There was an emphasis on new initiatives including a new artificial intelligence agency, the creation of a national cyber force and a new Space Command. With two of the three focused directly on the ongoing digital revolution, it is an acknowledgement of how widespread technology changes are nationally and globally.
However, whilst funding for our national cyber defensive infrastructure is put in place, a more holistic approach is needed to create a prosperous digital society. One that acknowledges the relationship between formal defence strategies and informal cyberinfrastructures that we come to rely on more and more. An example of this joined-up thinking can be seen in Estonia.
Estonia’s relationship with expanding its digital landscape began in 1996 with Tiigrihüpe (TigerLeap) a 1996 project to modernise Estonia’s digital infrastructures. It’s been an ongoing project since then, with offshoots such as EstWin, introducing ultra-fast (100mb+) broadband to within 1.5km of all homes, and ProgeTiger, a project equipping schools with computing education and equipment. ProgeTiger has affected 44% of 3-6-year olds and 85% of 7-16-year-olds in Estonia. This is in stark contrast with our own Government dropping its pledge of full-fibre by 2025, and children missing out on schooling during the pandemic due to lack of access to computers.
That is not to say that Estonia is not aware of the necessity of investment of cyber-defence. In 2007 it suffered an attack which completely shut down its major news sites, ATM usage in its capital of Tallinn, and usage of online banking services. It forced Estonia into shutting off all international internet traffic into the country. Whilst it was not the first denial of service attack of its kind, it was the first to be a wholescale attack on a country and its critical infrastructure. The defence minister at the time, Jaak Aaviksoo, described it as “This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation.”. The attacks themselves could be traced back to Russia. The question being raised whether this invoked NATO’s Article 5, that an attack on one is an attack on all. Out of this, Estonia saw it as essential to combine common military doctrine with its network defence, with NATO basing its Cyber Centre of Excellence in Tallinn in 2008. Funding for new cyber-security initiatives cannot happen in isolation.
In a recent article about the new defence initiatives, a senior Whitehall insider is quoted as saying “Where are the people who will make this real? Are there cybermen waiting to be activated?”. There are current GCHQ bursaries being offered to already motivated and engaged teenagers to study cyber-security at 18, but this is neglecting the hole in Computing that exists within UK schools, with only 11% of students taking the GCSE in 2017 (increased roughly by 1% since then). The success of the holistic approach to Estonia’s digital infrastructure is plain to see. It has produced four billion-dollar unicorns, one of the highest of any country per capita. With PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) ranking Estonia the best in Europe in 2018 on scholastic performance in 2018 and 5th best in the world.
Funding cyber-initiatives in the defence budget is welcome, but in isolation, it neglects the wider digital transformation that is going on. Estonia demonstrates what can be achieved when you invest in your national infrastructure and your people, alongside your defence. Whilst our current government has pledged to upskilling, this clear oversight shows either a lack of understanding or lack of commitment to what it really means. It is indicative of a Conservative party that is strong on the rhetoric but weak on the detail. Labour can create a truly transformational set of digital policies from the lessons of Estonia. One that does not neglect our regions outside of London, commits to its infrastructure pledges and fully funds the educating of our young people.
Benedict Churchus currently works in the software sector. He is particularly interested in data, computing education policy and using political mapping tools for local campaigning. He is the Secretary of the West Midlands Young Fabians. He tweets at @BenChurchus.