As anybody who has ever had a computer virus or hard drive crash knows, the best defense for online attacks is a good back-up. Or lots and lots of back-ups, stashed in several different locations.
That’s essentially the plan that Estonia is contemplating for its entire digital infrastructure. The tiny Baltic nation is one of the most wired countries in the world: Its citizens vote and pay their taxes online, free Wi-Fi proliferates, and even the smallest street-side kiosk accepts plastic. Indeed, Estonia is even considering offering “e-citizenships.”
But that also makes it among the most vulnerable to attacks. After a spat over a Soviet-era statue spilled over onto the streets in 2007, attackers widely assumed to be Russian in origin targeted Estonia’s’s vital services—banks, government, newspapers—with cyberattacks that lasted for weeks (paywall). The country has since become more sophisticated in preparing for digital attacks. But the concern is how to keep Estonia’s government operations going if the country were invaded or occupied.
Recent events in Estonia’s region have the country on edge. Russia’s manhandling of Ukraine is only the latest in a long line of Moscow’s aggressive actions towards former Soviet countries, including a brief war with Georgia (paywall) in 2008, and indeed the Estonian cyberwar of 2007. “It’s quite clear that you can have problems with your neighbors,” said the boss of Estonia’s Information System Authority, Jaan Priisalu, in an interview with Sky News. “And our biggest neighbor is Russia, and nowadays it’s quite aggressive. This is clear.”
One solution under consideration is to operate Estonia’s digital infrastructure from the cloud by setting up servers at embassies outside of the country. Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada are possible candidates, suggests the Eesti Ekspress, a weekly newspaper (link in Estonian).
The measure would provide some measure of operational security, Prissalu told Sky: “Usually when you are the military planner and you are planning the occupation of the territory, then one of the rules is suppress the existing institutions.” Sky reports that the United Kingdom is in “advanced talks to host the data” (despite reports that the UK is said to eavesdrop on all electronic communication in and out of the country).
The idea is not that far-fetched. Think of it as a 21st-century version of governments-in-exile, when the ousted leaders of occupied countries sought refuge in friendly nations. Except this time, it’s the government’s data that need to be safeguarded offshore.