Former Pres. Ilves talks cybersecurity, restarting banking system, and farming during Distinguished Lecture Series

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has planted more than 19,000 trees on his family farm that dates back to the early 1700s. He’s also helped reboot the banking system after a Russian cyber attack on the country he was leading at the time. 

“The first thing you must understand is – this was a DDOS attack, servers were overloaded and could not respond,” Ilves said during the Leadership in Technology: Distinguished Lecture Series. “Once we realized the attack was coming from abroad, we stopped any incoming queries to servers from outside Estonia.”

The attack was launched after the former president signed legislation to remove Russian statues from the capitol, a relic of Estonia’s past in the Soviet Union. 

“We weren’t expecting this level of attack and have since set up a mirror site,” Ilves explained. “If a server gets attacked, the overflow goes to another server so things still work. This was the first state-on-state attack. It was the first cyber war. It has been used since then as a political tool.”

The former president spoke to more than 650 people on Wednesday, September 28, about the importance of data security, cybersecurity, and steps Estonia has taken to protect their citizens in the digital age. 

Dr. Ravi Pendse, vice president of information technology and chief information officer for U-M, brought Ilves to speak as a part of the Leadership in Technology: Distinguished Lecture Series. Ilves is renowned for making Estonia one of the most digitally advanced nations through innovative policies that invested heavily in the future. He used his office to further the country’s leadership in digital governance as well as in cyber security.

“The concept of data integrity is so, so critical to everything we do,” Pendse said. “I’m happy to report to you that our security team here at Michigan, they’re very focused on both privacy, as well as data integrity, because that’s, to your point, very critical to what we do.”

Ilves’ interest in computers stems from an early age — he learned to program at the age of 13 — and he has been promoting Estonia’s IT-development since the country restored its independence. Ilves was born to Estonian refugees and raised in the United States, and holds a BA from Columbia and an MA from the University of Pennsylvania.

About the Distinguished Lecture Series

The Leadership in Technology: Distinguished Lecture Series invites you to hear from industry leaders and find inspiration in their journeys as you embark upon your own path to challenge the present and enrich the future through the innovative use of technology.

Learn more about the event and see past speakers: