Estonia as cyber-security leaders — new internship for Bell School students
The tiny country of Estonia is a superpower, but not in the way you might expect. It leads the world in cybersecurity and digital government, and Bell School masters student Caitlin Bickerton recently had the opportunity to learn first-hand exactly what it is that makes Estonia so powerful in this field.
Estonia is regarded as a pioneer in the field of cybersecurity, and this position of leadership has arisen mostly due to the fact that their society has been fully digital for over 20 years, and 99 per cent of their government services are delivered online. This makes them incredibly vulnerable to cyber attacks, which has propelled their cyber-preparedness well ahead of other nations. As Estonian Ambassador to Australia HE Ms Kersti Eesmaa noted,
“You can’t have digital without cyber-security. They go hand in hand.”
Estonia is also geo-located right next to Russia, so it makes sense that they would put infrastructure, skills and policies in place to ensure they are protected and insulated. Estonia experienced its first large cyberattack in 2007, and has been on the front foot ever since, as they experience ongoing, repeated, low-level attacks. This gives them a lot of opportunities for real-life, real-time “exercises” that their cyber workforce can work on and learn from.
For Caitlin Bickerton, a second-year student in the Master of International Law and Diplomacy at ANU, cyber-security and Estonia are now well and truly on her radar, even if they weren’t before. Caitlin travelled to Estonia for five weeks in May and June 2023 for the International Diplomacy internship in the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Digital and Cyber Department. This was the inaugural internship in a program that has been many years in the planning, between the Department of International Relations in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, DFAT (the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), and the Republic of Estonia.
The five-week internship in cyber diplomacy counted as a 6-unit credit towards Caitlin’s masters degree, and she spent her time in Estonia working and networking in a variety of settings. Cyber diplomacy is mainly focused on state behaviour in cyberspace and the principles and norms that apply to states in cyberspace. Cyber diplomats also contribute to the fight against international cybercrime and the protection of a free and open internet.
In the first week, she worked in the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. Whilst there, she performed a wide range of tasks, such as editing the Estonian President’s speech (being a native English speaker), and helping to process visa applications for the many delegates coming to attend the Tallinn Cyber Summer School. She also wrote the funding proposal for next years’ International Conference on Cyber Conflict – CyCon.
In the second week she had the opportunity to attend CyCon 2023 – the 15th international conference to build capacity in cyber, attended by military, defence and private sector cyber practitioners from around the world. While Caitlin is only in the second year of her masters, she felt that she was “treated as an equal, like she was already working in cyber as a diplomat”. She was also able to listen in on the May rounds of the UN Open Ended Working Groups (OEWG) where she gained insight into the bilateral and multilateral diplomacy process. It was a fantastic opportunity to witness operating in practice a system and process which she and other classmates had previously learnt about in theory. The UN deals with how international law is applied to the cyber domain, and is the basis for cooperation between nations on cyber security. The meeting was attended by some very active Cyber Ambassadors, including a new Cyber Ambassador from Australia.
In the third week, she prepared for her attendance at the Tallinn Cyber Summer School taking place the following week. The summer school was an opportunity to meet and engage with foreign diplomats working in cyber diplomacy. There were 53 delegates from 43 countries, mainly from the Global South. Caitlin had encountered some of these delegates the week prior, at the UN OEWG. She noted that
“while cyber is a very large threat, it is still quite a small sector, so once you’re in and you meet a few contacts, it is a tight knit network of very supportive people.”
When Caitlin was asked how Australia is viewed over there, in terms of our cyber capability and influence, she noted that Australia’s profile is pretty low. There were only three Australians at the Summer School, a government lawyer, a Major General, and herself – a student. She said...
“Awareness and capacity building on international cyber initiatives are growing stronger as the UN includes non-state actors (GFCE, ICC, Microsoft) to strengthen multi stakeholder approaches. Estonia is truly facilitating the trust building between states and actors, and I was able to witness that in action.”
In the fifth week of Caitlin’s internship, the Honourable Consul to Estonia from Australia, Matt Sorrell, arranged for Caitlin to visit some private sector companies, so she could get a well-balanced grounding in both sides of the cyber sector in Estonia. Estonia sees collaboration between the government and private sectors as key to maintaining and growing the country’s cyber capability. Caitlin visited Accelerate Estonia, CybExer, TalTech, the Tallinn University of Technology, and Nortal, a leading digital transformation company. She felt the final week was a great transition, prompting her to start thinking about how she would synthesise the experiences and understanding she had gained during the internship, and apply them both professionally and academically to an Australian context and cyber strategy.
The internship agreement between the Estonian Government, DFAT and the Bell School goes for three years. As this is the first time Estonia has accepted an intern from any foreign university, Caitlin was determined to put her best foot forward for ANU and Australia. The Ambassador commented that Caitlin has certainly set the bar high for the next intern.
In terms of her career trajectory now, after doing this Estonian internship and getting on-the-ground experience of being a diplomat, Caitlin says cyber diplomacy is squarely in her sights. She said she’d like to be a cyber policy adviser in the UN. Given her linguistic background – she learnt French at school, and Japanese and Korean on exchange – and the Bachelor of International Business from UTS already under her belt, we envisage DFAT would consider her an outstanding candidate once she completes her final year of the Master of International Law and Diplomacy at ANU.
Applications for the 2024 International Diplomacy Internship will open in early 2024. For further information, interested ANU Master of Diplomacy and Master of International Law and Diplomacy students can contact the internship convenor, Dr Sarah Logan, email@example.com