Cyber exercises this week in Sweden simulating attacks on internet infrastructure are key to enhancing defenses as the country prepares to join NATO amid the war in Ukraine, organizers said.
The Swedish Defense Research Agency, which is connected to Sweden’s Defense Ministry, is targeted with cyberattacks whenever Sweden says it will provide equipment to Ukraine, or when tensions otherwise rise during the war, said Lena Nyberg, the agency’s deputy director general.
Although cyberattack scenarios relating to the war in Ukraine weren’t part of the exercise, called Safe Cyber, the conflict was surely “in the back of the heads of everyone participating,” Ms. Nyberg said.
“We see a heavily deteriorated security situation,” said Tommy Gustafsson, technical exercise director at the agency.
Sweden’s move to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will prompt the need for more cyber defenders in the country’s military, said Thomas Nilsson, chief information officer and director for cyber defense at the Swedish armed forces. The military is now training its third class of cybersoldiers since initiating the program.
The armed forces will have to determine how to contribute expertise to the alliance’s cyber defense teams, he said. Sweden and Finland, which also applied to join NATO this year, already participate in the organization’s yearly cyber exercise.
Around 80 technicians and managers competed in the Safe Cyber exercise on Tuesday and Wednesday, in teams of military and government experts as well as technology and telecoms professionals. Technical specialists provided situational reports to managers who then made decisions such as whether to disclose the simulated hacks to the public or order safeguards to contain digital damage.
Many Swedish companies have taken steps to improve cybersecurity since the war in Ukraine started in February, including hiring cybersecurity staff and consultants, said Johan Sjöberg, a senior adviser at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, a trade group representing around 60,000 companies.
One issue that is difficult to predict, Mr. Sjöberg said, is how an attack on a supplier would affect a company. The exercise’s focus on defending internet and tech companies used by many businesses emphasized the potential domino effects of such an attack, he said.
“When the internet stops working a lot of society stops working,” Ms. Nyberg said.
Mr. Nilsson of the Swedish armed forces said he now speaks more frequently with corporate managers and CEOs about cybersecurity than before the war. “There is a change in the private sector. Now it’s much more of a concern,” he said.
Last year, Sweden opened a national cybersecurity center to coordinate between government agencies and companies about cyber threats. The agency is gradually expanding its threat warnings and support to prevent attacks.
In 2020, the armed forces started training conscripts in cyber defense. The country reactivated a military draft system in 2018 after suspending it in 2010, and recruits from a pool of people selected through the draft. They participate in the program and remain reserve soldiers when they go on to work in the private sector. Some so-called cybersoldiers participated in the Safe Cyber exercise this week, a refresher of their training, Mr. Nilsson said.
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