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Estonia is becoming world’s competence center for maritime cybersecurity

Tallinn University of Technology’s (TalTech's) new research group for maritime cybersecurity combines two topics Estonians know the best: maritime and cybersecurity.

Most of the goods transported internationally are shipped with cargo ships. An attack on a ship, port facility, or a transport company could have devastating effects.

The next challenges lie in maritime cybersecurity

TalTech will focus on maritime cybersecurity partly because Estonia is located next to the Baltic Sea. Rain Ottis, the head of TalTech’s Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security sees that it is important for Estonians to make sure that all the sailors, ships, port facilities, and supply chains are safe.

“We have the maritime and cybersecurity competencies, we are now combining two topics we know well. TalTech wants to put Estonia on the map for people that start to think about maritime cybersecurity,” Ottis stated.

TalTech’s School of IT and Estonian Maritime Academy have received a grant from the European Union to establish a maritime cybersecurity centre. This five-year project aims to develop cybersecurity in the maritime sector and increase TalTech’s reputation by involving top researchers from around the world.

One of the project leads Dan Heering sees that the maritime industry has not taken cybersecurity seriously for a long time and there is a lot to be done in this area. He researched the topic as part of his Master’s thesis and found that the lack of interest by shipping companies so far may be in part due to low awareness of the threats and the potential damage that a successful attack may cause.

Heering’s thesis gives some examples of things that have gone wrong. In 2019 there was the case of a cargo ship bound for New York having to contact the US Coast Guard due to a malware infection. This had affected the ship’s computer systems, which could significantly reduce its ability to manoeuvre safely. In 2017, Campbell Murray, a cybercrime expert, demonstrated at a super-yacht conference that in a short time, it was possible to take over a ship equipped with modern technology using only a laptop.

“With this project, we aim to find a critical mass of people that have an interest in cybersecurity and maritime affairs. To get to the next phase of cybersecurity we need to have specialists for certain topics. Maritime is one of them,” Ottis said.

Although the program itself is still in the early stages, TalTech has performed an exercise with students from the Estonian Maritime Academy that have an interest in cybersecurity. The cybersecurity students were handed the keys to a simulator while an experienced helmsman was virtually navigating a ship in it.

“It was only a demo case, but we successfully showed how a shipmate with over 20 years’ experience navigated his ship to a reef because all of the navigational systems went crazy. It shows what may go wrong.”

Ottis hopes that the maritime sector will realize that cybersecurity is vital for them, because in case they are faced with an attack that takes their systems down, they need to revert to old school methods that are costly and time-consuming.

Estonia has become the cornerstone of cybersecurity

In the past decade, there have been many cybersecurity organizations founded in Estonia that have received international praise. NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence is located in Tallinn, and many of the cutting-edge cybersecurity companies are either founded by Estonians or have offices here. Malwarebytes, Cybernetica, CybExer Technologies, Clarified Security, Guardtime, and RangeForce to name a few.

To meet the needs of the growing cybersecurity community, TalTech is trying to solve the manpower shortage problem for the Estonian cybersecurity industry. At the same time, they try to help out the international cybersecurity community. To achieve that, TalTech’s Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security started to increase cyber competence that Estonia has to offer.

“Estonia has had plenty of opportunities to practice cybersecurity. On the TalTech side, we both conduct research and education in cybersecurity. We have a Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD cybersecurity program, all taught in English,” Ottis described.

TalTech’s experience has shown that some of the graduates go off to work for the police and border guard to fight cyber crimes, some join the Defense Forces and others start working for private companies doing cybersecurity related work.

TalTech has been engaging in cybersecurity research in various fields. One of the studies that Ottis was involved in, focused on the Korean national cyber exercise. The Centre has also been involved with the risk analysis of a self-driving car project called Iseauto that TalTech has been developing for a couple of years now.

“Over 90% of the cybersecurity Master’s students have some background in IT, but then there are the ones that just show interest in cybersecurity. If they don’t have any background in IT, but they show hands-on attitude, we can work with them. In the hourglass system (students with diverse backgrounds study together at TalTech to go out and solve problems in various industries), every student is faced with topics that take them out of their comfort zone. Some of the topics are appealing to them and some are not, but in the end, they will have to work together on complicated and multifaceted cybersecurity problems,” Ottis said.

To find out if the personnel and the systems themselves can cope with a potential cyber threat, Ottis recommends using a cyber range and hands-on exercises for individual and group training. Cyber ranges can be compared to training grounds that militaries around the world use to train for combat. It’s a fairly safe way to find out what is the best tool to avert a cyber threat. Some of the previously mentioned companies offer a cyber range as a service.

A cyber range is a system capable of imitating the functioning of a complex computer network and providing the opportunity to practice various cyber operations without endangering operational computer networks.

Wish to know more about opportunities in cybersecurity that Estonia can offer? Read more here or send Invest Estonia a request for e-Consulting to be assigned a personal advisor who will help you with your business plan in Estonia.


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