Cyber Warfare between Estonia and Russia

By Kampmark, Binoy | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Cyber Warfare between Estonia and Russia


Kampmark, Binoy, Contemporary Review


IT seemed innocuous enough. The grim bronze statue of a Soviet soldier in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, an already uncomfortable presence at the centre of a city no longer under Soviet 'occupation', was relocated last April to the tranquil setting of a war cemetery. The remains of Soviet soldiers buried beneath followed. An already beleaguered Russian minority, incensed and disenfranchised (many remain stateless within Estonia), protested. Their version of history is somewhat different from the authorities in Tallinn: the supreme sacrifice made during the 'Great Patriotic War'--the Russian term for the Second World War--had to be honoured. The statue had become the rallying point for anti-government protesters, a talismanic presence for the Russian protestors. Riots broke out. One fatality was reported.

Then, with its ever heavy-handedness in the region, the Kremlin stepped in, expressing displeasure at this 'violation' of Russian rights. On inspecting the relocation of the statute, a member of a delegation of Russian deputies, Leonid Slutsky, would comment that 'the statute is not broken. It was transported carefully and placed well in this military cemetery'. This did not stem the Russian anger, sensitive as they have been to alleged human rights violations against the minority. For Anatoliy Yegorov, board chairman of the rather longwinded Union of Estonian Associations of Russian Compatriots, the moves against the statute and pro-Russian protesters signified a 'squeezing-out of the Russian-speaking population'.

The next stage of Russian anger was even more ominous. There were no retaliatory measures of a strictly military nature--in a different era, Russian-led forces might have easily quelled such acts of 'blasphemy' from nations within its orbit. Instead, economic measures were discussed and implemented (the severing of passenger services between Tallinn and St. Petersburg amongst them). Estonian sites have been physically attacked. The Estonian embassy in Moscow received an unhealthy degree of attention from a Russian youth-group, as did its ambassador. It ended after a deal brokered by Germany which saw the ambassador abruptly leave, ostensibly for a 'holiday'.

But the most peculiar of responses came in the form of electronic warfare. Its goal, as one text on the subject reads, 'is to control the electromagnetic spectrum'. [1] While electronic warfare is hardly new, its connection with computer security in this specific context has never received so much attention. This is not entirely surprising in the Estonian case. Estonia has become a marvel of e-government, where online procedures dominate. Its journeys into the 'electromagnetic spectrum' have been nothing short of spectacular. In November 2005, the aptly named Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications announced its 'information security policy'. Measures included e-security cooperation and coordination. Such improvements were bound to excite the attention of those information technology rebels keen to test their worth. This is exactly what happened.

On April 27, a cyber attack on the websites of Estonia's government ministries, political organisations, newspapers, banks and companies commenced. The Economist titled it a 'cyber-riot'--protesters had taken their grievances to the World-Wide Web, launching an offensive that crashed sites with excessive 'bogus requests'. [2] The websites of the Justice and Foreign ministries were rendered inaccessible. The attacks also took other forms. Internet chat on forums was heavy with instructions on how to overwhelm Estonian government websites with traffic. Websites were literally defaced. Russian propaganda made an appearance, a form of cyber-scrawl and graffiti. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip found, much to his surprise, a Hitler moustache drawn on a photo placed on his party's website. In computer language, we had witnessed a wave of Distributed Denial of Service attacks (DDoS) and Botnets (computers hacked from remote sites and literally controlled to unwittingly deliver spam and viruses to any location in the globe). …

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