​Cybersecurity for kids: 'The earlier we teach this, the better specialists we'll have'

A school in Estonia has started a pilot project to teach the basics of cybersecurity to teenagers.

schoolchildren in computer class

Estonia sees long-term benefits to teaching computer security in schools.

Image: HighwayStarz

In the spring of 2007, Estonia had a disagreement with Russia about plans to move a World War II Soviet war memorial within the capital city, Tallinn. The controversy resulted in two nights of mass riots.

At the same time, Estonia suffered a series of cyberattacks. The scale of these attacks was unprecedented. Targets included public- and private-sector organizations and institutions, including Estonian ministries, parliament, broadcasters, newspapers, and banks.

The attacks were sophisticated and well constructed, consisting of various strategies and methods, such as DDoS attacks, ping floods, botnets, spamming, and website defacements.

Since the 2007 attacks, Estonia's private and public sector, often working together, have heavily increased the security of the country's IT systems and built stronger authentication services, firewalls, and backup systems.

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These efforts and Estonia's growing expertise in that field have been noticed worldwide, and in 2008, NATO's Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, or CCDCOE, was established in Tallinn.

There have also been new initiatives in the education system. One school in the small town of Põltsamaa has started a pilot course on how to defend systems against cyberattacks.

As well as studying the conventional subjects, 16 boys and one girl are now also being taught the rudiments of cybersecurity and cryptography.

According to Tiia Mikson, deputy headteacher at Põltsamaa Gymnasium, the pupils have been studying the first introductory course in cybersecurity called 'information society'.

"During this course our students have already visited NATO's Cyber Defence Centre in Tallinn, e-Estonia Showroom, and TRÜB, which is the company that produces Estonian ID cards. They've also attended a lecture given by the specialists of Information System Authority (RIA)," Mikson says, adding that the first course was developed in cooperation with RIA specialists.

"Soon we're going to have a lecture via Skype where our alumnus Erki Kert is going to talk from London about his company, Big Data Scoring, and about the collection and usage of big data."

The school is keen to apply new approaches and technologies in its curriculum. Other students are taking courses in the basics of programming, 3D modelling, robotics based on Arduino kits, cloud services, and technical drawing.

The school is working with its partners from the University of Tartu and voluntary national organization, the Estonian Defence League, in developing the next courses, which cover the basics of internet security, digital security, cryptography, and an introduction to mechatronics.

According to Mikson, after successfully finishing those four courses, students should have a basic knowledge of cybersecurity. They should be able to spot the most frequently used types of attacks and know how to deal with them, how to protect devices, and understand cryptography, and the use of basic cryptography tools in everyday internet activities.

The pilot scheme grew out of collaboration with the Estonian Defence League, whose representatives approached the school at the beginning of 2015, suggesting an after-school activity program where students could get practical experience with technology, such as flying drones, as well as theory classes.

"The drones brought up the issue of safety, and then we started to talk about cybersecurity in general. After that, we came up with the idea of introducing the subject into our curriculum and started to look for partners," Mikson says.

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"Young people can be really clever when using the internet, but they have to know how to act without endangering others and defend themselves when needed," she says.

"Also, we need specialists, in the case of a so-called cyber war. The earlier we teach this, the better specialists we'll have. Even if only a few of them are going to end up as cybersecurity specialists, it's still a big thing for us."

Siim Alatalu, international relations adviser at NATO's Cooperative Cyber Security Centre of Excellence, argues that it's imperative for a modern society to have an enhanced understanding and awareness of cyber in the broadest sense, both of the challenges as well as the solutions and the way forward.

"Within this project, we're only one of the many contributors, alongside several Estonian institutions. Yet we welcome the initiative by Põltsamaa Ühisgümnaasium that provides its future graduates with a good insight into a key topic, not only for Estonia" he says.

"Regardless of the students' future career plans, an enhanced awareness of cyber issues benefits anyone."

According to deputy headteacher Mikson, a few students have already been inspired by the courses and are planning to continue studies at university level -- and some are even helping to introduce the cybersecurity program in other schools too.

Read more about cybersecurity

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