June 2008

Stung by cyber warfare

Estonia and six NATO allies signed a deal in mid-May to provide staff and funds for a new research center to boost the alliance's defenses against cyber terrorism.

The agreement came a year after the small Baltic nation suffered an unprecedented wave of cyber attacks that crippled government and corporate computer networks.

The attacks lasted three weeks and followed deadly riots sparked by the relocation of a Soviet war memorial.

The Associated Press reported many Estonians suspect the Kremlin was behind the virtual strikes, but Moscow has denied involvement.

The attacks showed how vulnerable individual countries are to cyber warfare and underscored the need for a joint NATO response, said Estonian Maj. Raul Rikk, who heads the center.

"The attacks against Estonia last year were cyber terrorism to say the least," Rikk told The Associated Press in a tour of the facility in Tallinn. "The job of the center is to create new capabilities to fight against new threats."

The defense ministers of NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Slovakia signed the pact. The U.S. will join the project as an observer.

The center will be operational in August. A staff of 30 specialists will conduct research and training on cyber warfare. They will also be ready to help NATO members respond to any future attacks against computer networks.

Staff will be from various NATO member states and fields of work, including information technology, science, military, and finance.

NATO representative James Appathurai said, "Cyber defense is now something every country, every company, and every individual needs to be conscious of."

The assault last year on Estonia's system came days after Estonia decided to relocate a Soviet war memorial and grave from downtown Tallinn, triggering riots among the country's ethnic Russian minority, and infuriating Moscow.

The web sites of major banks, newspapers, and government ministries fell to denial-of-service attacks, in which hackers overload a single network by directing massive traffic to the site.

Some sites simply crashed. Others, such as those of banks, had to restrict foreign access, leaving Estonian account holders traveling abroad without access to cash.

Investigators said as many as 1 million remotely steered computers were part of the attacks.