Lithuania is fast becoming a leader in cybersecurity, but how can it harness this skill to protect itself from growing external threats?
In eastern Europe, Lithuania – which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 and borders Belarus, a close ally to Russia and supporter of the invasion of Ukraine – has had good reason to make cybersecurity a top priority. The country is bolstering its efforts to create a flourishing cybersecurity sector, and in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lithuania’s affinity with tech agility and creative security solutions is becoming more pronounced.
Lithuania is plotting to compete with eastern European neighbours such as Poland and Estonia as a globally recognised hub for cybersecurity and tech talent. Notably, in the chart above, the ITU 2020 Global Cybersecurity Index ranked Lithuania in sixth place, below Estonia (third) and Russia (fifth). However, in e-Governance Academy Foundation’s 2021 Cybersecurity Index, Lithuania ranked second, behind Greece, with Estonia in fourth place.
However, alongside competition to bolster cybersecurity, the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine also requires strategic international cooperation, particularly between countries in eastern Europe and across the Nato alliance. How is Lithuania balancing creating a robust and lucrative cybersecurity sector with the threat of war?
As tensions continue to rise in eastern Europe, this growing reputation of strong tech talent and a focus on cybersecurity efforts will be significant to the continued stability of these countries. Kęstutis Budrys, chief adviser to the president of Lithuania, says that actions from aggressive neighbours – Russia and Belarus – have helped to form a framework for responding to cybersecurity incidents.
“There were hybrid attacks from Belarus and Russia in 2021 following the rigged election [in Russia],” says Budrys. “There were cyber activities against our institutions and infrastructure. Their main objective [in these attacks] was espionage and data collection, not so much disruption.”
Budrys highlights that there is “informational warfare” that Lithuania must remain proactive in.
Alongside ensuring Lithuania is secure, Budrys says that supporting the Ukrainian efforts is a key priority for Lithuania’s government. This is in line with Lithuania’s macro view in the wake of the Russian war; that eastern European countries and, specifically, countries holding Nato membership, should be combining their knowledge on cybersecurity and other security-focused efforts to create solidarity in numbers.
“We should follow this line of combined operations in the cyber domain,” says Budrys. “[Our intended] purpose is to defend first and then counterattack our adversaries.”
The nature of cybersecurity means that the sharing of information between ally countries (and even with relevant companies within the country) requires a delicate balance of sharing skills without revealing secrets.
Budrys explains that having small communities in cybersecurity – including a National Cyber Security Centre that sits within the country’s Ministry of Defence and brings together key Lithuanian companies, universities and organisations – creates trust. He highlights that in the immediate term, information sharing between Lithuania, Ukraine and other affected countries – although difficult to orchestrate – is the priority from a government perspective.
Alongside threats closer to home, Antanas Aleknavičius, the head of cyber security and IT policy at Lithuania’s Ministry of Defence, explains that Lithuania is also taking steps to protect itself against China. Tensions have increased between the two countries after Lithuania formally acknowledged Taiwan by authorising the opening of a de facto embassy in Vilnius in November 2021.
“We are preparing for an escalation. We are aware of the global threats with Russia and China,” says Aleknavičius.
Alongside cybersecurity efforts, Aleknavičius explains that Lithuania has also used regulation as a tool to keep its networks and infrastructure safe.
“We changed our public procurement and trade regulation by ruling that ‘untrusted’ suppliers cannot participate in our public tenders, especially when it comes to critical infrastructure,” Aleknavičius says.
Budrys agrees that while China is certainly on the government’s radar, Lithuania’s strategy on Russia is more advanced and that “[threats from] China are a bit newer to us”.
Furthermore, Lithuania is keen to strengthen global relationships. Marius Laurinaitis, head of the study programme on law and fintech at Mykolas Romeris University in Lithuania, highlights the university’s joint initiative with Australia’s RMIT University.
The Australian-Lithuanian Cyber Research Network began in February 2022 with the objective of being used by the two countries to share resources, research and experiences.
He explains that the university would be happy to see this initiative expanded to include other global partners.
“We are developing this as an open initiative. We want to join [programmes] as well as attract other partners not only from Australia,” says Laurinaitis. “The RMIT University is to have an open network with universities including in New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan. We will see what will happen in the nearest future.”
While a cybersecurity sector has benefits for national security, particularly for a country in close proximity to conflict, it is also proving to be an important economical asset to the country.
More generally, according to GlobalData’s FDI Projects Database, in 2022 (up to October), software and IT services accounted for 42.31% of Lithuania’s total foreign direct investment (FDI) projects, with business and professional services being second most important, accounting for 7.69%.
The continued growth of the cybersecurity sector – among other technology-based sectors – is strengthened by significant investment from the government into research and development (R&D). Lithuania ranks in the top ten for European countries for growth in gross domestic expenditure per capita into R&D, according to Eurostat, putting it four places below bordering Poland.
Despite being behind Poland in R&D spend, Lithuania has seen the fastest growth in active cybersecurity jobs between December 2021 and November 2022, according to the GlobalData Jobs Analytics Database.
Varmour, a multi-cloud security company, announced its software development centre in Lithuania in November 2021. When asked why Varmour chose the city of Vilnius, chief technology officer Marc Woolward cited a good reputation for IT talent.
“There is a level of curiosity and flexibility in thinking that allows you to set up something quite quickly and get a team up and running and productive very fast,” he says.
While being interviewed in his Vilnius office, Woolward points out the empty desks and the intention to scale the company. Seats waiting to be filled by Lithuania’s upcoming generation of tech talent is commonplace in the country.
In the construction site of Vilnius’ Cyber City, and more specifically the office block that is intended to house Lithuania’s second tech unicorn, Nord Security (a cybersecurity company), there are an estimated 1,100 workspaces being created in the building with the intention to create room to scale.
“We need developers, that is for sure,” says Marijus Briedis, choef technology officer of NordVPN at Nord Security. “Vilnius is a small city to be honest; that is why we are looking not only to attract the talent but to grow the talent.”
The focus on upskilling talent is also widespread across the sector, from initiatives to encourage women into cybersecurity roles, to the Vilnius coding school, which offers a variety of flexible courses, to internal courses such as the Switch programme on software development offered by Nord Security to its employees.
As Lithuania continues to plot its security strategy against a backdrop of combative geopolitics, while strengthening global alliances, the agility of a tech-savvy talent pool and a government that invests significantly in cyber defence stands the country in good stead.
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