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Estonia’s young cyber talents head to Europe’s biggest cyber competition, with high hopes of winning

During 13–16 September the annual European Cyber Security Challenge (ECSC) will take place in Vienna, aiming to connect young IT talents with companies and organisations in the field. Once again, the Estonian national team, which was put together through preliminary rounds and a training camp, will take part in the competition. The main sponsor of the qualification event and the ESCS team is the Estonian Internet Foundation, and the project is run by the TalTech Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security.
Estonia’s young cyber talents head to Europe’s biggest cyber competition, with high hopes of winning
The team is coached by Johannes Kadak and Triin Muulmann, and the team captains are Rao Zvorovski and Taavi Eomäe. Rico-Andreas Lepp, Jan Hendrik Jõgi, Jaan Artur Viirsalu, Markus Veerbaum and Joonatan Jakobson will compete in the younger age group, and Rao Zvorovski and Taavi Eomäe, Jürgen Laks, Mikk Margus Möll, Semjon Kravtsenko and Jekaterina Gorohhova will compete in the older age group.

Now that the competition is a few weeks away, the time is right to ask the organiser of the competition, Birgy Lorenz, the leader of TalTech’s CyberOlympics project, and Johannes Kadak, the team’s coach, some quick questions.

How well is the team prepared for the competition and is there anything new or different this year compared to previous years?

Johannes: ‘Compared to previous years, the current team consists of both veterans with years of experience and newcomers joining the competition for the first time. I am very happy to see that despite a two-year break due to COVID-19, the interest of Estonian youth in cyber camps, collaboration and cyber competitions is still the same.’

Birgy: ‘Recent years have not been easy, as the online platform alone is not enough, because a sense of community is created by doing things together and actually meeting and getting to know each other. This year, we have organised two camps in real life and two through the web. The last one was an international event with the best from Norway and Denmark among the participants.’

Who do you consider your old rivals or closest competitors? What is your greatest strength?

Birgy: ‘The biggest challenge will be to compete with countries where the “talent pool” is large – for example Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, the UK and Austria, where there are thousands of applicants from universities and vocational schools. The headquarters of IT companies in large countries are keen to ensure that young people get the best computers, software and training programmes for the competition.

On this occasion, however, we are very grateful to the organisers in Austria, who, in order to ensure a level playing field, provided free HackingLab training programmes for all countries. Otherwise, it’s still Estonia and other small countries, such as Cyprus, Malta, Luxembourg or Lichtenstein, who are doing their best to send their teams to the competition. As with the Olympics and other major sporting events, it is a miracle that our team has done so well that we are in the top 10 every year. After all, there are usually participants from 18 to 27 countries!’

Well, if the IT-savviness of the national team is, to put it mildly, above average, what is the IT literacy of the so-called ‘ordinary youngsters’ and what is the trend in this respect? Are there any signs of progress in the digital literacy of young people?

Johannes: ‘We feel that the “skills floor” has been raised – most young people can send emails and draft documents. The Estonian educational system provides the basic knowledge on how to use Excel, PowerPoint and to manage social media accounts.’

Birgy: ‘But how to take young people beyond these basic skills? How to make them interested in what’s inside? To get young people to ask themselves: do I understand how processes really work? Am I complacent using someone else’s creation or can I do something myself? Can I solve the problems myself, e.g. figure out how to get Wi-Fi to place X where the coverage is bad, or do I just accept that there is no Internet?’

Johannes: ‘Sometimes it’s even harder to start hacking because it’s no longer as easy to dismantle, tinker with, modify a computer or smartphone as it used to be; and it also ends the warranty of the device. People are also very lax about accepting any kind of provider rules or simpler operating system solutions that do the thinking for them. At the same time, in the case of Linux, for example, you still have to understand how things really work in order to get it under your control.’

Is there any way to follow the competition in real time and cheer our team on?

Birgy: ‘The organisers will share this information mainly on Twitter. There probably won’t be a live broadcast, as the competition will last for 2 days and may look like an ordinary IT farm with 400 participants sitting at their computers.

However, the competition website is worth checking out.’ You can find out more about the results and participation of our Estonian team on Facebook, on the Cyber Olympics channel.

Thank You very much and good luck!

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