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A fake cyberwar held in Estonia could help nations prepare for real life threats

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Just across the border from Russia, a war is taking place in a former Soviet republic. We're not talking about Ukraine here but Estonia. The war is in cyberspace, part of a NATO-led annual drill. And this year, the stakes couldn't be higher. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin sends us this report from the Estonian capital.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Berylia and Crimsonia are at war. The two islands disagree on politics, on who controls neighboring islands and their resources. One lashes out at the other in cyberspace.

MEJ YAKER: And as you can see on a screen there, about 20% of firewalls, for example, have been attacked out of a two-day campaign.

MCLAUGHLIN: Mej Yaker (ph) is the leader of the red team, Crimsonia, the bad guys in a cyber exercise held every year called Locked Shields. Normally, he's the head of a private cybersecurity company. Today, he's the adversary. A screen outside their war room shows the attacks they're launching. Right now, it's mostly attacks on energy companies and on the website of the Berylia institute of virology. And the red team is just getting started.

YAKER: We always play the, like in boxing, left and right hand. So we have a lot of very visible attacks. Usually, these are website defacements, and which are more of an annoyance, like drawing attention away to do the more prepositioning for the later attacks that the blue team most likely is not noticing yet.

MCLAUGHLIN: Everyone will notice when the attacks are really successful. For one thing, the giant screen imitating the power grid will turn red. Worst case, there's a box full of firecrackers for special effects.

KERRY COONGER: And yes, when it explode, it means that the system's down, basically.

MCLAUGHLIN: That's exercise director Kerry Coonger (ph).

COONGER: If the blue teams defend it, then it won't blow.

MCLAUGHLIN: The two imaginary island nations don't exist, of course. But Estonia has been running cyber drills since 2008, the year after Russia basically knocked the country offline in one of the first overt ideological cyberattacks on a nation.

COONGER: We look at how modern conflict is being conducted, and we bring it into our exercise environment.

MCLAUGHLIN: The mastermind of the exercise, Adrian Venables, says he has been working on the plot of this week's cyberwar for the last year, well before Russia invaded Ukraine.

ADRIAN VENABLES: I monitor global information warfare scenarios and real-world events, and then we incorporate them into our exercises. So they are absolutely real and are all inspired by what we see in today's world.

MCLAUGHLIN: That includes hackers targeting brand-new technology, like 5G and a communication system for international banking, plus, says Venables, a big emphasis on the power of social media.

VENABLES: As the exercise has developed, we've introduced much more social media in use, So we have Twitter emulators and we've introduced for the first time this year a TikTok-type emulator of short videos.

MCLAUGHLIN: Simulated TikTok and Twitter - or Birdle (ph) in this fictional country - might sound funny, but the tone of these games is notably serious. The real-life war in Ukraine is on everyone's minds.

KALLE LAANET: Of course, it's more serious. And if I'm looking at the faces behind the computers, they are serious, motivated and trying to do his best.

MCLAUGHLIN: That's Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet. He stopped by the exercise wearing a blue flower pin on his lapel in honor of veterans month, a symbol of spring renewal. He noted the war in Ukraine is a stark reminder that Russia, just over the border, could attack any of the countries participating in the exercise at any time, something Estonia knows firsthand and is dead set on stopping.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News, Tallinn, Estonia.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "FATHER BIRD, MOTHER BIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.