Rat attack: Rodents disrupt Estonia’s digital state

The Estonian digital society, dubbed as e-Estonia, has witnessed many attackers in the past, not least the cyber-attacks originating from Russia in 2007; on 20 November, however, it had to briefly concede to unexpected warriors – rats.

Estonia is rightly proud of its digital services. You can pretty much do everything online – file taxes, cast a vote, sign documents, set up companies, study. A report by the World Bank has stated that Estonia is one of a handful of countries closest to becoming a true digital society.

The country has over the years witnessed both verbal and physical attacks against its digital state. In 2007, for example, Estonia faced a cyber ambush, originating from Russia, that has been widely acknowledged as the world’s first cyber war. Ultimately, though, the digital state always triumphed – as a result of the 2007 attacks, Estonia has become a global heavyweight in cyber security-related knowledge, advising many other states on the matter.

Rat attack

On 20 November, however, e-Estonia had to deal with an attack originating from the animal kingdom – for dealing with which, there’s apparently no manual yet. At about 4.30pm that day, Estonia’s State Information System Agency (RIA) learned there was a malfunctioning of an underground cable, knocking off the state portal eesti.ee and disrupting the country’s digital services. For example, it was impossible to issue digital prescriptions.

On a closer inspection, it was found that the cable in question had been severely damaged by rats. Because of the extent of the damage, repair work on the cable was immediately started to prevent further damage later. The disruption affected the operation of eesti.ee – the gateway page to government information and digital services – and the services of the Estonian Health Insurance Fund. The website of Eesti Loto, a state-owned lottery company, was also affected.

The cable in question, severely damaged by rats (RIA).

Kaido Plovits, head of the State Network Department at RIA, said in a statement that the “situation was unacceptable”, but the “state network was not fully protected” from such incidents. “Because the cable was badly damaged, we had to start repairing it immediately, otherwise the damage would be much greater later. We apologise for any inconvenience and will work hard to fully restore the service soon,” he said. The digital services resumed approximately three hours later, at 7.30pm.

Establishing parallel data connections

Plovits added the state network is increasingly establishing parallel data connections to prevent similar interruptions in future. Under normal circumstances, the RIA would announce emergency maintenance work in advance, but Wednesday’s incident required immediate response, he said.

According to RIA, there were no interruptions in the operation of the ID card – a prerequisite for Estonian residents to access the digital services – and the mobile ID.

Cover: A brown city rat (the image is illustrative/photo by G. Scott Segler/Wikimedia Commons).

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