Cyber security education in Estonia: from kindergarten to NATO Cyber Defence Centre

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Cyber-attacks against Estonia in 2007 pushed Estonia at the front line of cyber security. One of the results of this cyber-warfare was the wide acknowledgment that cyber security knowledge and skills are part of the information society’s blood circulation.

Today we can report that the Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security at TalTech provides the highest level of cyber security education…starting from first-graders!

Arena for strong cooperation with the world’s best

In general, TalTech’s Department of Software Science, especially its Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security, is materializing the ambition to be the best provider of cyber security bachelor, master’s, and doctoral education in the Nordic countries and the Baltics. Several factors support it: Estonia’s history in leading the mindset that cyber security must grow along with the digitalization of the society; establishment of NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn; support from the Estonian Ministry of Defence and a vast network of enterprises that are developing top-end cyber security solutions. Through cooperation with this capable network, the Center can provide each student with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in cyber security jobs in Estonia and elsewhere. For example, when this article is published, the annual NATO cyber security exercise Locked Shields, the world’s largest of its kind, is taking place in Estonia with students, professors and professionals engaged. 

A man posing
Professor Rain Ottis.

Professor Rain Ottis, Head of the Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security, stresses the strength of this cooperation: “Cyber security requires a holistic approach that covers people, processes, as well as technology. To ignore even one of the three is inviting disaster. Therefore, we tackle the topic from the perspective of different fields and scientific disciplines”. 

The Centre’s multidisciplinary and diverse team conducts research along the spectrum of cyber security – from cryptography to network security to education. The Center staff is routinely engaging in cooperative projects with the private sector. One of the examples Mr. Ottis highlighted was the development of “Cyber Range” – a field for exercising defence of cyber-attacks without setting up designated servers. This is a product that a wide range of companies and public entities can use to ramp up their cyber-skills.

Cyber-hygiene starts from childhood

To create a cyber-aware society, Estonian education guidelines suggest students start taking the first steps in kindergarten. Besides official curricula and teaching materials, nonformal informatics curricula and training competitions support the use of digital safety awareness in schools and homes. The Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security has had a significant impact. More than 150,000 students from the age of 7 onwards and 5,000 school teachers have participated in their programs from 2017-to 2021. 

They have created (along with their partners) a system of interlinked competition for various school levels that help to educate, support, and inspire young people to be more aware of cyber security. Kids are expected to start with simple sentence calculation tasks at the CyberPin competition for 7-13-year olds and continue with security in social media and programming at CyberDrill and CyberCracker competitions. 

A Mechanism to recognize talents

However, Dr. Birgy Lorenz, Senior Researcher and Head of the Cyber ​​Olympics talent program, stresses that with these programs, they aim towards selecting the brightest heads and supporting them in their career paths.

“We are educating about 20 000 young people annually, but our dream is to find 10,000 cyber security talents in the next 10 years, which will help Estonian society become safer and more skilled,” Ms. Lorenz explains.

A woman smiling
Dr. Birgy Lorenz.

Talented students are directed to take part in the CyberSpike competition, where the best hackers will also get a boost through cybercamps, meeting with companies, and international experience like Magic CTF or CyberPatriot (USA), European Cyber ​​Security Challenge (EU), and Cyber ​​Security Defence Camp (Singapore). The competitions are topped up with CyberOlympics, which functions as the preliminary round for European Cyber Security Challenge. 

From competitions to community leaders

Johannes Kadak is one of the talents that has passed through the variety of programs of the Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security. After successful competitions, he was the captain of the Estonian CyberOlympics team until 2021, when he was selected as the coach for the European team for the International Cybersecurity Challenge (ICC). Now the founder of two IT companies, he has confessed that participation at the competitions inspired him to get involved with the field.

“I think the most important step for young people is to influence their way of thinking, not just providing knowledge because the Internet is full of expertise, but if you don’t have a curious mindset, it is useless,” Mr. Kadak suggests. 

The Estonian CyberSpike competition that Mr. Kadak won definitely appeals to young people. The “Capture the Flag”-type exercise simulated a cyber-attack against various organizations at an imaginary City of Blueberry. Tasks ranged from accessing hacked e-mail servers to reverse engineering.

“In addition to guiding talents towards further studies at our programs, we are on the lookout for hackers — young people with the highest skill level in programming. Throughout the years, we have found about 500 hackers through these competitions,” Ms. Lorenz reports. “We focus on them because they are leaders in their communities – schools, and friends – and we see that after participating in our programs, they help their peers steer away from the “grey” or even illegal hacking towards legal activities, like increasing cyber-security.”

Hence, according to Ms. Lorenz, the stakes involved with young people are high. 

“The sustainability of every digital country depends on our ability to harness the competence of the young people,” Ms. Lorenz concludes.

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Written by
Peeter Vihma

social scientist at the university of helsinki and the estonian university of life sciences


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