Estonia and US joint operation strengthens cyber defense

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U.S. and Estonian cyber command seals. Source: Ministry of Defense

A joint Estonian and United States defensive cyber-operation ran through much of the fall, using Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) networks, the defense ministry said.

The operation, which ran from September 23 to November 6, was designed to counter malicious cyber-actors, and hellped strengthen cyber-defense capabilities of both countries, the ministry says.

Deputy commander of the EDF's cyber command Mihkel Tikk said: "Combined operations with our closest allies like U.S. are vital for ensuring security of our services. These kind of operations provide our operators an opportunity to exchange best practices as well as give us objective feedback on our current defense posture in the cyber domain. This operation is another successful milestone in our cooperation with our U.S. partners."

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy: Cyber a team sport

The symbiotic benefits come through assessing potential threats and jointly disclosing malware and other dangers, with the benefits in terms of cyber-security spreading worldwide, the ministry says.

Thomas Wingfield, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy, said: "Cyber is a team sport. When it comes to halting threats from cyberspace, no one can go it alone."

"Our strategy hinges on collaborating with our allies and partners, with the private sector and academia, and with state and local governments to ensure cyberspace remains a safe, secure, and open engine of innovation and prosperity," he went on.

U.S. cyber specialists, known as "Hunt Forward" teams, have partnered in the past with counterparts from other countries in the hunt for malicious cyber activity and persons, but this was the first time cooperation with Estonia had taken place.

Hunt Forward teams play a crucial role in U.S. Cyber Command's (USCYBERCOM) "persistent engagement", aimed at countering malicious cyber activity, the Estonian defense ministry says, and USCYBERCOM personnel are specially trained to secure and defend government networks and platforms against adversaries.

Estonia and U.S. comparing notes

The efforts also attracted the attention of the international media, with AP News calling the pairing of the U.S. and Estonia a natural fit in many ways, not least with the 2007 Denial of Service attacks on government networks by Russian cyber actors, concurrent with the Bronze Soldier night riots taking place in the physical world.

The initiative allowed U.S. Cyber Command to compare notes on Russian-based cyber activities directed against Estonia, vis-a-vis those directed against the U.S., Brig. Gen. William J. Hartman, Cyber National Mission Force said.

Quoted by the New York Times, Brig. Gen. Hartman said: "The ability to share that information back with our whole of government partners is a key component of the defense of the elections."

As a digital society, the exercise was hugely significant for Estonia as well, Margus Matt, undersecretary at the defense ministry said.

Matt said: "For us it´s really important to be one of the first allies the U.S. has initiated this kind of joint operation with, one which enabled us to obtain an independent assessment on our networks."

"As a leader in cyber, it also provided Estonia an opportunity to share best practices to better protect our networks," Matt, who is responsible for cyber defense at the ministry, went on.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Maria Biank, director of United States European Command's (USEUCOM) C4 and cyberspace directorate, added that: "U.S. European Command's robust Cyber Security Cooperation program is focused on building up allied and partner cyberspace operational capabilities, which strengthens trust and cultivates strong ties with our cyber partners throughout Europe."

"Through bilateral and regional security cooperation efforts and information sharing initiatives, we are able to further enhance our collective cyber-security posture as well as enable Hunt Forward operations in our area of responsibility," Brig. Gen. Biank continued.

U.S. taking more aggressive stance on cyber

Quoted in the AP news piece, Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, hinted at a more aggressive, proactive federal government approach to cyber threats on the part of the U.S., writing in an August piece for Foreign Affairs magazine that U.S cyber fighters have moved away from a "reactive, defensive posture" and are increasingly engaging in combat with foreign adversaries online.

Interference in U.S. presidential elections has long been the subject of scrutiny, though no foreign power has so far been able to disrupt voting there, either by direct hacking into election systems or the propagation of disinformation online, the New York Time reported, precisely thanks to more aggressive Cyber Command operations, and also the result of federal aid in protecting networks at a state and local government level.

Estonia's Cyber Command, established in 2018, primarily provides command support within the Ministry of Defense's activities and contributes to ensuring the security of Estonia in general, the defense ministry says.

The recent U.S.-Estonian cyber operations are just one example of ongoing cooperation at various levels and within USCYBERCOM, U.S. European Command, Maryland National Guard, and Sixteenth Air Force (U.S. Air Forces Cyber), the defense ministry says.

A recent joint exercise saw U.S. special forces on exercise in Estonia.

NATO's Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) is headquartered in Tallinn.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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