Russian cyber-attacks on Estonia

Here is a report from the Guardian on what it calls the first cyber assault on a state. 

Whether it's the first or not, this type of attack is something we have known was going to be inevitable, something that was destined to become a standard characteristic of political conflict.

I came across the report while browsing a must-read new identity site called blindside (more on that later…).  Here are some excerpts from the Guardian's piece:

A three-week wave of massive cyber-attacks on the small Baltic country of Estonia, the first known incidence of such an assault on a state, is causing alarm across the western alliance, with Nato urgently examining the offensive and its implications.

While Russia and Estonia are embroiled in their worst dispute since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a row that erupted at the end of last month over the Estonians’ removal of the Bronze Soldier Soviet war memorial in central Tallinn, the country has been subjected to a barrage of cyber warfare, disabling the websites of government ministries, political parties, newspapers, banks, and companies.

Nato has dispatched some of its top cyber-terrorism experts to Tallinn to investigate and to help the Estonians beef up their electronic defences.
“This is an operational security issue, something we're taking very seriously,” said an official at Nato headquarters in Brussels. “It goes to the heart of the alliance's modus operandi.”

“Frankly it is clear that what happened in Estonia in the cyber-attacks is not acceptable and a very serious disturbance,” said a senior EU official…

“Not a single Nato defence minister would define a cyber-attack as a clear military action at present. However, this matter needs to be resolved in the near future…”

Estonia, a country of 1.4 million people, including a large ethnic Russian minority, is one of the most wired societies in Europe and a pioneer in the development of “e-government”. Being highly dependent on computers, it is also highly vulnerable to cyber-attack.

It is fascinating to think about how this kind of attack could be resisted:

With their reputation for electronic prowess, the Estonians have been quick to marshal their defences, mainly by closing down the sites under attack to foreign internet addresses, in order to try to keep them accessible to domestic users…

Attacks have apparently been launched from all over the world:

The crisis unleashed a wave of so-called DDoS, or Distributed Denial of Service, attacks, where websites are suddenly swamped by tens of thousands of visits, jamming and disabling them by overcrowding the bandwidths for the servers running the sites…

The attacks have been pouring in from all over the world, but Estonian officials and computer security experts say that, particularly in the early phase, some attackers were identified by their internet addresses – many of which were Russian, and some of which were from Russian state institutions…

“We have been lucky to survive this,” said Mikko Maddis, Estonia's defence ministry spokesman. “People started to fight a cyber-war against it right away. Ways were found to eliminate the attacker.”

I don't know enough about denial of service attacks to know how difficult it is to trace them. after the fact.  But presumably, since there is no need to receive responses in order to be successful in DOS, the attacker can spoof his source address with no problem.  This can't make things any easier.

Estonian officials say that one of the masterminds of the cyber-campaign, identified from his online name, is connected to the Russian security service. A 19-year-old was arrested in Tallinn at the weekend for his alleged involvement…

Expert opinion is divided on whether the identity of the cyber-warriors can be ascertained properly…

(A) Nato official familiar with the experts’ work said it was easy for them, with other organisations and internet providers, to track, trace, and identify the attackers.

But Mikko Hyppoenen, a Finnish expert, told the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper that it would be difficult to prove the Russian state's responsibility, and that the Kremlin could inflict much more serious cyber-damage if it chose to.  (More here…)

There was huge loss of life and bitterness between Russia and Estonia during the second world war, and there are still nationalist forces within Russia who would see this statue as symbolic of that historical reality.  It is perhaps not impossible that the DOS was mounted by individuals with those leanings rather than being government sponsored.  Someone with a clear target in mind, and the right technical collaborators, and who could muster bottoms up participation by thousands of sympathizers could likely put this kind of attack in place almost as quickly as a nation state.

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.

6 thoughts on “Russian cyber-attacks on Estonia”

  1. This is far from the first ‘cyber assault on a state’. DDoS attacks against governmental entities go back many years; for example, DDoS attacks relating to the Balkans conflict, China vs. Japan, et. al.

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