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Cryptography and Trust: Estonia and the Modern Information Society

On June 10, The Institute of World Politics welcomed Andres Kütt, Head Software Architect, and Liina Areng, Head of International Relations, both of the Estonian Information System Authority to speak on the state of cyber security globally, as well as their country’s pioneering transition to electronic governance. Mr. Kütt and Ms. Areng generously offered their time and expertise to inform the IWP community about the importance of a rapidly changing cyber landscape.

Mr. Kütt told the audience how there is a constant war being waged between the governments, corporations, and organizations that secure private data and the rogue criminal hackers who seek to steal it from their databases. In reality, he said, there is not a guaranteed method of securing online data in this modern era. Rather, there are differing levels of coding sophistication and mathematical formulas by which cryptographers and cyber attackers engage in their web-based warfare.

Mr. Kütt explained how, essentially, this worldwide data conflict is driven by secure codes and encryptions that protect data and the efforts by rogue states or actors to disrupt them. Time, he says, is the worst enemy of cryptographers, as their electronic battlements are constantly under siege. The most effective way to mitigate the risk of cyber attack, he noted, is to hire the most talented pool of cyber defenders.

Mr. Kütt and Ms. Areng informed the audience that governments are at the forefront of the cyber challenges that face the 21st century. The Republic of Estonia in particular has been a global leader in so-called “E-governance,” transforming their Baltic nation of 1.3 million into a cyber powerhouse. Estonia, they report, has been highly successful in its endeavor to render the services and obligations of government into electronic models. For example, Estonia is the only one of its kind in the world to have institutionalized E-voting in national elections. This kind of groundbreaking civic engagement, the speakers emphasized, is dependent on a high degree of trust in its accuracy and incorruptibility.

Mr. Kütt and Ms. Areng explained how the Estonian government relies on its advanced corps of citizen-cryptographers. The Cyber Defense League was established in 2010 as a response to the unprecedented cyber attacks on the country years earlier. This organization of volunteer cryptographers serves the national cyber defense by donating their talents in service to Estonia.

Mr. Kütt and Ms. Areng went on to explain the interconnectedness of the digital ecosystems that populate the Internet. What affects one facet of the web is sure to translate into tangible consequences for the other. Further, the immense difficulty in identifying the origins of a cyber attack means that a coherent, reliable encryption is increasingly the only viable avenue of defense.

Mr. Kütt and Ms. Areng serve the Estonian Embassy in Washington and work to advance the mutual understanding and cooperation in cyber security between Estonia and the United States.