The tiny Baltic country of Estonia seems to be the first battlefield in this new kind of conflict known as cyberwar. It has been a topic of considerable concern by computer engineers and security experts for years, but it was never a reality; that is, until now. It began when computers around the world and in Russia began flooding Estonian computer networks with so much data that many of them crashed. The three-week wave of massive cyber attacks is causing alarm throughout the nations of NATO, and is the first known incidence of such an assault.
In the words of Estonian defense minister, Jaak Aaviksoo:
“At present, NATO does not define cyber-attacks as a clear military action. This means that the provisions of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, or in other words, collective self-defense, will not automatically be extended to the attacked country. Not a single NATO defense minister would define a cyber-attack as a clear military action at present. However, this matter needs to be resolved in the near future.”
The entire digital infrastructure of Estonia, which is considered one of the most “wired” nations in the world, was compromised. The population of 1.4 million people, including a large Russian minority, relies on the Internet for everything from voting and paying taxes to paying for parking. A pioneer in the development of e-government, Estonia is therefore, highly vulnerable to cyber-attack.
As far as particulars are concerned, the websites of both the president and prime minister of Estonia crashed, as well as the computer systems at the parliament and other government departments. The country’s biggest bank nearly crashed as well. Estonian computer security and effective emergency planning saved the tiny nation from a complete shut down but if it should happen again, the results may not be the same.
What started the war? The Estonians blame the Russians and the Russians say they are innocent, but one thing is certain. The two forces have been embroiled in their worst dispute since a row erupted over Estonia’s removal of the Bronze Soldier Soviet War Memorial in central Tallinn. Since then, Estonia has not known a moment’s peace and has been subjected to a barrage of cyber warfare.
NATO has dispatched some of its top cyber-terrorism experts to Tallinn to investigate and to help the Estonians defend themselves electronically. One official said:
“This is an operational security issue, something we're taking very seriously. It goes to the heart of the alliance's modus operandi.”
Both NATO and the European Union are being careful not to accuse Russia directly, but if Russia is responsible, it would mark the very first known incident of cyber-warfare. Relations between the Kremlin and the western world are at an all time low, and bitter disputes arising between Russia and Estonia, Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Georgia only exacerbate the dissension and isolation.
It is not clear how great the damage has been. The Estonians have been quick to close down the sites under attack to foreign Internet addresses, in order to try to keep them accessible to domestic users.
Mikko Hyppoenen, a Finnish expert, told the press that it would be difficult to prove the Russians were responsible, and that the Kremlin could inflict much more serious cyber-damage if it chose to.
Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador in Brussels said:
“If you are implying [the attacks] came from Russia or the Russian government, it’s a serious allegation that has to be substantiated. Cyber-space is everywhere. I don’t support such behavior, but one has to look at where the attacks came from and why.”
Merit Kopli, editor of Postimees, one of the two main newspapers in Estonia, whose website has been targeted and has been inaccessible to international visitors for a week, issued this statement:
“The cyber-attacks are from Russia. There is no question. It’s political. This is the first time this has happened, and it is very important that we've had this type of attack. We've been able to learn from it.”
Even though Estonian officials say that one of the masterminds of the cyber-campaign, identified from his online name, is connected to the Russian security service, expert opinion is polarized on whether the identity of the cyber-warriors can be ascertained properly.
Estonia has survived the cyber war this time around, which is perhaps even more important that establishing the culprit responsible. Hopefully, there won’t be another attack. Still, hope is not enough, and Estonia must remain in defensive mode from now on, for the loss of its digital infrastructure is simply too great to even contemplate.
Good luck, Estonia!