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Estonians power up Latin America’s cyber competence

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Estonian Information System Authority provided the know-how and key personnel for the EU’s competence centre for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC4) to combat rising cyber threats. The centre, located in the Dominican Republic, is the first of its kind and an essential step toward the EU’s leading role in global cyber security.

Cyber-attacks can cripple entire countries

Besides boasting of this unique centre of cyber defence, Latin America also provides examples of what is at stake in cyberspace. This year, Costa Rica was forced to declare a state of emergency after crippling ransomware attacks against its government by the Russian-speaking Conti gang. This was the first time a country declared a state of emergency due to cyber-attacks. 

The attack brought Costa Rica’s government almost to a halt. Taxes, pensions, customs, and other operations were forced to use paper documents. While Costa Rica’s example is perhaps the most visible, cyber-attacks by criminal gangs and hostile countries are frequent around the globe. 

The example of Costa Rica indicates the scope of what is at stake. The European Union has pledged to support the digital security of its partner countries in its Cybersecurity Strategy and its digital diplomacy in general. 

Practical output for a network of experts

LAC4, which opened in May 2022, is the latest practical output in the field, and it does not stand alone. The centre grew out of a more comprehensive CyberNet project of the EU. The project, also led by the Estonian Information System Authority, established a network of more than 240 top minds in the global cyber security community. 

A blond smiling woman
Ms. Liina Areng.

“Finding suitable experts is a sensitive task,” says Liina Areng, a former Estonian cyber diplomat at NATO and currently CyberNet regional program lead in LAC4. “CyberNet functions like a club. To join our ranks, an applicant should have at least two references known to us. While many of our experts are Estonian, we have recognized that expertise should be conveyed in the native language. Therefore, we have hired globally.”

Besides providing expertise, CyberNet also coordinates the EU’s numerous digital and cyber development aid projects. On a broader level, it functions as a cyber capacity-building tool for the EU Service for Foreign Policy Instruments to deliver training activities globally. LAC4 is the first physical centre for training and expertise, providing an output for the CyberNet network of experts.

LAC4 educates and creates trust

LAC4 offers expertise and training for Latin American governments and businesses and functions as a regional hub. The first event it hosted was a conference for telecom operators on the topic of net security. Now, LAC4 is consulting countries like Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Guyana on how to develop cyber threat risk assessments and crisis management plans. Also, a training cycle started in January on how to prepare and run cyber drills. Molded after similar events in Estonia, LAC4’s first cyber security drill will take place in November with the involvement of 9 Caribbean countries.

“Although our primary focus this year is on Caribbean countries, we are encouraging cooperation between countries all across the LAC region,” says Ms. Areng. “It may be a digital world, but to create trust, people in different administrations need to meet face-to-face.  Only with these personal connections can people better combat cross-border incidents. This is one of the aims of the events we are organising.”

Additionally, LAC4 is empowering countries to act as sub-regional hubs themselves. Uruguay, Ecuador, and Costa Rica are already stepping up to these roles.

Estonian reputation opens doors

According to Ms. Areng, Latin America is a dynamic region of the world, and the EU is paying keen attention to it. The competition for “hearts and minds” is intense since the US, China, Israel, Korea, and other countries aim to provide their expertise.

“While the EU may be sometimes unfathomable in Latin America, Estonia is a good “trademark” for creating awareness of the EU and cyber topics,” says Ms. Areng. “Being such a tiny country, we have no global political ambition. Therefore, simply our reputation helps to open many doors.”

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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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