Parallels
11:43 am
Wed June 12, 2013

Tallinn: The Former Soviet City That Gave Birth To Skype

Originally published on Wed June 12, 2013 5:20 pm

The Baltic city of Tallinn hardly looks modern with its blend of medieval towers and Soviet-era architecture. Smoke-spewing buses and noisy streetcars look as if they have been plucked from the past.

Even so, the Estonian capital is one of the world's most technologically advanced cities. The birthplace of Skype has repeatedly been cited for its digital accomplishments. Last week, Tallinn once again made the short list of the world's most intelligent cities as selected by the Intelligent Community Forum.

Tallinn residents depend on the Internet for just about everything, and automation is the rule. Riding the bus is free but requires a "smart card" that you wave over an onboard sensor pad that allows central transit authorities to track your movements.

Mailing a package requires a sender to use his or her cellphone to request a code from the electronic post office downtown. The code opens a locker to start the package on its journey.

City parking is another digital adventure. Journalist Gustaf Antell says it starts with a text message to an electronic parking authority.

"I think everybody in the city knows the number to the parking service: 1, 9, 0, 2," he explains. "Then I put my car's number, and then I also write the code" for the parking lot.

The fee appears on his monthly cellphone bill, which he pays electronically.

Estonians are also required to carry chip-embedded identification cards. Without the card, residents don't officially exist in Estonia. The cards are used for voting, prescriptions and most other transactions, all done online.

Working Toward Better Government

Many Estonians appear to embrace their digital dependence. It's a trend that began after Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union two decades ago.

Officials say they had to create an "e-government."

"We are a small nation, and at the same time we have to develop a government that has same functionality as the big countries," explains Jaan Priisalu, who is director general of the Estonian Information Systems Authority, which has the task of protecting the country's Internet infrastructure.

He adds that with a population of about 1.4 million, there simply aren't enough Estonians to run things.

Growing private sector Internet and communication technology is a priority in Estonia. Near the Tallinn airport is Technopolis, the city's version of Silicon Valley. Scores of Estonian businesses there introduce the latest in high-tech services and gadgets to visitors from Estonia and abroad.

One recent favorite is ideal for those with a brown thumb. It's called Click&Grow, says Anna Piperal, who manages the ICT Demo Center at Technopolis.

"It's a plastic box, which looks something like a Mac product," which comes with seeds, two AA batteries and a microchip, she says. "So once every two months, you are putting water inside, and the chip is so smart that it feeds and grows the plants exactly according to the plants' needs."

All the owner has to do is put the box somewhere in the sunlight, Piperal adds.

A 20-minute drive from Technopolis, Estonian teachers and families flock to a tech fair that features state-of-the-art educational tools. Young Estonians learn that even tradesmen must become computer literate and tech savvy.

One item on display is a programmable milling machine, which carves wood based on what students draw on an attached computer screen. The machine is already in use at a fifth of the country's schools.

Educational technologist Ingrid Maadvere says educators hope to eventually replace textbooks with electronic tablets now that so much teaching and homework is done online.

"We have one joke in Estonia: that Internet connection is one of the human rights," she says.

Some Residents Left Out

But it's a right not afforded to everyone in Tallinn, especially the poor.

One of them is Valere Kalinin, who is part of Estonia's Russian-speaking minority. The 50-year-old unemployed laborer lives in two cramped rooms with his wife and two teenage sons in the sprawling Kopli neighborhood of the capital.

When asked about the importance of Internet to his family, Kalinin laughs.

"I have real problems like finding work and money for food," he says. "This is not for me, this Internet."

He adds that he can't afford electricity, let alone Internet, though a junction box from the local provider is attached to the wall outside his crumbling flat. The family lives without power for months at a time.

Kalinin's problems are not unique, says Mati Sinisaar, an Estonian pastor who works with the unemployed man's sons and other needy Russian children.

"I was asking these young people why they are out of school. I asked what is the main reason you feel you are more poor than your friends in school?" he recalled. "I was waiting that maybe they say because of bad shoes, maybe bad clothes, maybe not enough food. They say that they drop out of society because they don't have Internet connection at home."

Even so, it's Russians here and abroad who are accused of carrying out the worst cyberattacks in Estonian history.

The attacks that began in late April 2007 were in response to the Estonian government uprooting a Soviet-era statue called the Bronze Soldier and moving it across town.

Ethnic Russians in Tallinn were angry because they weren't consulted about the move. They saw it as yet another slap by the Estonian majority, which has marginalized them since gaining independence.

The attacks forced the government, banks and businesses to shut down their websites. Organizers also used mass text messaging to get protesters out to snarl traffic.

Some accused the Russian government of masterminding the attacks, which it denied. But Russia refused to cooperate with any outside investigation.

In the end, a single ethnic Russian was convicted for taking part in the cyberattacks. He confessed and was fined $1,500.

The attacks had Estonia scrambling to better protect its Internet infrastructure from future attacks. The country now hosts routine cyberattack drills in which government and private sector participants learn to spot and stop phishing attempts and viruses.

"We have intrusion detection systems, we have firewalls, we have had more exercises, we have done more trainings together with the government, with public sector, with private sector, so yeah, we are better prepared today," says Aivo Koger, a security expert at the country's largest Internet provider, Elion.

Estonian officials also persuaded NATO to set up a Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn.

International lawyers there recently completed the "Tallinn Manual," the world's first comprehensive guide on legally tackling cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. And it's time for the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Develop it into a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If other cities can do it, we can do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This whole beauty is based on technology and integration.

CORNISH: We've been covering digital innovation in urban centers and the push for smart cities. The idea is to make cities more efficient with the help of technology. Well, putting city infrastructure and commerce online can also make it vulnerable to cyber crime. The Baltic city of Tallinn in Estonia has experience with that.

BLOCK: Tallinn looks anything but modern, a blend of medieval towers and Soviet-era architecture. The city's smoke-spewing buses look plucked from the past. Even so, the Estonian capital is consistently ranked among the world's most tech-savvy places. People are required to have digital identities in this birthplace of Skype. And they depend on the Internet for nearly everything.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson takes us around town.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: There's a science fiction flavor to life in Tallinn, where automation is the rule. Want to ride the bus here?

You'll need to wave a smartcard over the onboard sensor pad to do so. Want to mail a package? You'll need a cellphone to request a code from the electronic post office downtown. That code opens a locker to start the package on its journey.

City parking is another digital adventure. Journalist Gustaf Antell explains how it works as he sends a text message to an electronic parking authority.

GUSTAF ANTELL: I think everybody in the city knows the number to the parking service: 1-9-0-2. And then I put my car's number, and then I also write the code, the P-7.

NELSON: So that's parking lot 7. It's telling you where you are in the city?

ANTELL: Yeah, exactly.

NELSON: And where do they take the money from?

ANTELL: I get it on my phone bill. And now, they will just send me an SMS within some seconds. Then I...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

ANTELL: So there it came.

NELSON: Residents are also required to carry chip-embedded identification cards. Without the card, you don't officially exist in Estonia. They are used for voting and most other transactions, all of which are done online.

Estonians appear to embrace such digital dependence. It's a trend that began after Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union two decades ago. Officials say they had to create an e-government because there simply aren't enough Estonians to run things.

Growing private sector Internet and communication technology is also a top priority in Tallinn.

One of the rapidly expanding communities you see after you leave the airport is Technopolis, the local version of Silicon Valley. Here, scores of Estonian businesses introduce the latest in high-tech services and gadgets, for example, a microchip-operated pot that grows perfect plants.

Across town, children flock to a concert hall that is hosting a tech fair encouraging them to embrace the digital way of life. Here, young Estonians learn that even tradesmen must become computer literate.

This programmable milling machine, which carves wood based on what students draw on an attached computer screen, is already in use at a fifth of the country's schools. And educational technologist Ingrid Maadvere says much teaching and homework is now done online.

INGRID MAADVERE: We have one joke in Estonia that Internet connection is one of the human rights.

NELSON: But it's a right not afforded to everyone in Tallinn - especially the poor. Many of them live here in a sprawling seaside neighborhood called Kopli. One is Valeri Kalinnin. He is part of Estonia's Russian-speaking minority.

VALERI KALINNIN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The 50-year-old unemployed laborer lives in two cramped rooms with his wife and two teenage sons. He can't afford electricity, let alone Internet, although a junction box from the local provider is attached to the wall outside his crumbling flat. The family lives without power for months at a time.

Mati Sinisaar is an Estonian pastor who works with Kalinnin's sons and other needy Russian children.

MATI SINISAAR: When I was asking those young people why they are out of school, and then I asked, what is the main reason that you feel that you are more poor than your friends? I was waiting that maybe they say because of their bad shoes, maybe bad clothes, maybe not enough food. They say because they don't have Internet connection at home.

NELSON: Even so, it's Russians here and abroad who are accused of carrying out the worst cyber attacks in Estonian history.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

NELSON: Russians in Tallinn celebrating Victory Day, which marks the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, gather here at the Bronze Soldier. It was the relocation of this statue that prompted the attacks. Ethnic Russians were angry because they weren't consulted. They saw it as yet another slap by the Estonian majority, which has marginalized them.

The cyber attacks began in 2007 and continued for a couple of weeks, forcing the government, banks and businesses to shut down their websites. Organizers also used mass text messaging to get protesters out to snarl traffic. The attacks hammered home for Estonians how vulnerable their digital way of life can be. Some accused the Russian government of masterminding the attacks, which it denied.

Meanwhile, Estonia scrambled to better protect itself. It now hosts routine cyber attack drills. Officials also persuaded NATO to set up a Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn. International lawyers there drew up the first comprehensive guide on tackling cyber warfare.

Cyber defense is a hot topic at the country's largest Internet provider called Elion, where Aivo Koger is a security expert.

AIVO KOGER: We have intrusion detection systems. We have firewalls. We have had more exercises. We have done more trainings together with the government, with the public sector, with private sector. So, yeah, we are better prepared today.

NELSON: But many Estonians worry they haven't seen the last of mass cyber attacks.

Here at the main bus station in Tallinn, Heiti Sommer says he feels vulnerable.

HEITI SOMMER: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: But he adds: This is progress, and you can't stop it.

SOMMER: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Whatever the risks, officials here say the Internet-run society and e-government in Estonia are here to stay.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Tallinn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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