The flags of Belgium and Sweden were unfurled in front of NATO’s “Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence” in Tallinn, Estonia May 30, as the two nations joined the organization. Bulgaria and Portugal are also said to be mulling membership, as the alliance pushes for its constituents and allies to fight the alleged threat of cyberattacks.
The elevation brings the group’s membership to 17, with Belgium joining full members Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, UK and US. Sweden joins Austria and Finland as a “contributing participant” — the status granted to non-NATO members.
”International cooperation of like-minded nations in cyberdefense is becoming inevitable. We are witnessing a growing interest towards our applied research, trainings and exercises, but the preparedness of nations to contribute themselves reflects more than just recognition to the work that has been done. It proves we offer needed support for member nations and the international community in building their cyberdefense” said Sven Sakkov, Center Director, in a statement.
While launched in 2008, it is only since 2014 the Center has garnered mainstream attention — that year, then-President Barack Obama ordered a ramping-up of NATO’s cyberdefense capabilities, warning a cyberattack against a bloc member could trigger the same response as military aggression. Nonetheless, the center’s activities are somewhat opaque, although its website describes the organization as “a multinational and interdisciplinary hub of cyberdefense expertise.”
Since 2010, it has organized an annual technical cyberdefense exercise, Locked Shields. In its 2015 outing, the exercise gathered teams from the Center’s then-16 member nations, with some playing hackers and others system admins, who were respectively charged with attacking and defend critical infrastructure.
The US’ push for NATO to focus on cyberthreats has spread to individual member states, with the Czech Republic’s Interior Ministry establishing in 2016 a division to monitor and analyze “hybrid threats” to the country’s security, such as online disinformation campaigns. Dubbed the “Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats”, the center aimed to prevent interference in the country’s October general elections via online disinformation and other covert means, such as cyberwarfare, puppet groups, and support for populist and extremist factions.
CTHH drew sharp criticism following its launch, in some cases from surprising quarters — the country’s own President Milos Zeman led the charge, saying the unit could infringe on free speech. He even went as far as creating a dedicated Twitter account to attack the unit, styled “CUTI” — a reference to Czechoslovakia’s communist-era censorship office. Non-member Finland has even gotten in on the action, opting to host a joint center for combating “hybrid threats” in Helsinki.