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Cyber Security

Latvia launches Cyber Defence Unit to beef up online security

The Latvian army hired the country's first 13 cyber guards in February. As part of the Cyber Defence Unit, they will also help Latvia's military and government's IT security response in the event of a conflict.

Eriks Dobelis is among the 13 who have been officially selected for Latvia's newly established Cyber Defence Unit. The 37-year-old computer expert and father runs an IT consulting firm in Riga. Even though he doesn't wear a military uniform he's going to fight like a real soldier.

"Just like a soldier has to know how to handle his weapon and how to shoot, a cyber guard has to understand what kind of methods are being used in an attack and how to deal with those methods," Dobelis says.

The Cyber Defence Unit consists of a team of IT specialists and students from the public and the private sector.

Dealing with an invisible enemy

Unlike a "real" army, the cyber corps face an invisible enemy. A cyber attack can come from anywhere in the world.

"If, for instance, somebody's trying to do something from a local garden shed, then we simply identify the shed," says Dobelis.

In such a case, the unit would inform law enforcement agencies which would respond with the appropriate action.

"But if there's a more sophisticated case, then we try to do everything we can to limit the attack and to understand what's really happening," Dobelis explains.

Latvia Cyberguards

Prospective cyber guards during a practice session

A unit of volunteers

The Cyber Defence Unit is part of the National Guard of Latvia - a voluntary military organization that can be asked to help the national armed forces. The difference is that the cyber corps will also have to help the National Computer Security Incident Response Team (CERT.LV) in the case of a conflict.

CERT.LV is an agency in the Latvian Ministry of Defence - it's responsible for the country's IT security. It cooperates with more than 600 IT specialists from government institutions and local authorities.

"People who apply to join the Cyber Defence Unit are checked before they get clearance for classified information," says Baiba Kaškina, the head of CERT.LV. "And that's why we are able to involve the cyber guards in cases where very sensitive information is involved."

The agency wouldn't be able to deal with a cyber attack during a crisis on its own, and that's why the Cyber Defence Unit is critical.

The cyber guards undergo a lot of training, including "Locked Shields" - an annual real-time network defense exercise which is organized by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia. Locked Shields also happens to be a cyberwar game.

"The most popular scenarios include cyber attacks on electricity, gas, heating and also water supply. Those are the things that can affect the daily basic needs," says Kaskina. "But there can also be attacks on the government's administration system where lasting disruptions can cause significant problems."

Eriks Dobelis is a cyber guard

Eriks Dobelis is one of the cyber guards

Latvia has never had a cyber attack, but neighboring Estonia has. In April, 2007, Estonian banks, government ministries and media organizations were hit by a series of cyber attacks during a public row over the relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a Soviet wartime monument.

Estonia's foreign minister accused the Kremlin of being directly involved in the cyber attacks, which prompted the country to launch the Estonian Cyber Defence League in 2011.

Cyber security a bigger priority

With Latvia set to assume the presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2015, cyber security has become more significant for the government.

Latvia will become the focus of global attention during the presidency, says Janis Sarts, the State Secretary of the Ministry of Defence of Latvia. "And we [the Latvian government] can't really predict whether an interest group, some activists or certain countries will suddenly want to react to some particular EU policies and get their message across by launching cyber attacks."

Latvia wants plans to increase the Cyber Defence Unit by up to 100 soldiers in the next few years. According to Sarts, a similar team will be established for the Youth Guard - a movement for teens.

"We have to understand that children are very active users of the cyber world. We even know of cases when a 14-year-old teenager has created an app which has turned him into a millionaire," Sarts says.

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