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[ISN] Cyber Assaults on Estonia Typify a New Battle Tactic
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
May 19, 2007
TALLINN, Estonia, May 18 -- This small Baltic country, one of the most
wired societies in Europe, has been subject in recent weeks to massive
and coordinated cyber attacks on Web sites of the government, banks,
telecommunications companies, Internet service providers and news
organizations, according to Estonian and foreign officials here.
Computer security specialists here call it an unprecedented assault on
the public and private electronic infrastructure of a state. They say it
is originating in Russia, which is angry over Estonia's recent
relocation of a Soviet war memorial. Russian officials deny any
The NATO alliance and the European Union have rushed information
technology specialists to Estonia to observe and assist during the
attacks, which have disrupted government e-mail and led financial
institutions to shut down online banking.
As societies become increasingly dependent on computer networks that
cross national borders, security experts worry that in wartime, enemies
will attempt to cripple those networks with electronic attacks. The
Department of Homeland Security has warned that U.S. networks should be
secured against al-Qaeda hackers. Estonia's experience provides a rare
chance to observe how such assaults proceed.
"These attacks were massive, well targeted and well organized," Jaak
Aaviksoo, Estonia's minister of defense, said in an interview. They
can't be viewed, he said, "as the spontaneous response of public
discontent worldwide with the actions of the Estonian authorities"
concerning the memorial. "Rather, we have to speak of organized attacks
on basic modern infrastructures."
The Estonian government stops short of accusing the Russian government
of orchestrating the assaults, but alleges that authorities in Moscow
have shown no interest in helping to end them or investigating evidence
that Russian state employees have taken part. One Estonian citizen has
been arrested, and officials here say they also have identified Russians
involved in the attacks.
"They won't even pick up the phone," Rein Lang, Estonia's minister of
justice, said in an interview.
Estonian officials said they traced some attackers to Internet protocol
(IP) addresses that belong to the Russian presidential administration
and other state agencies in Russia.
"There are strong indications of Russian state involvement," said Silver
Meikar, a member of Parliament in the governing coalition who follows
information technology issues in Estonia. "I can say that based on a
wide range of conversations with people in the security agencies."
Russian officials deny that claim. In a recent interview, Kremlin
spokesman Dmitri Peskov called it "out of the question." Reached Friday
at a Russia-E.U. summit, he reiterated the denial, saying there was
nothing to add.
A Russian official who the Estonians say took part in the attacks said
in an interview Friday that the assertion was groundless. "We know about
the allegations, of course, and we checked our IP addresses," said
Andrei Sosov, who works at the agency that handles information
technology for the Russian government. His IP address was identified by
the Estonians as having participated, according to documents obtained by
The Washington Post.
"Our names and contact numbers are open resources. I am just saying that
professional hackers could easily have used our IP addresses to spoil
relations between Estonia and Russia."
Estonia has a large number of potential targets. The economic success of
the tiny former Soviet republic is built largely on its status as an
"e-society," with paperless government and electronic voting. Many
common transactions, including the signing of legal documents, can be
done via the Internet.
The attacks began on April 27, a Friday, within hours of the war
memorial's relocation. On Russian-language Internet forums, Estonian
officials say, instructions were posted on how to disable government Web
sites by overwhelming them with traffic, a tactic known as a denial of
The Web sites of the Estonian president, the prime minister, Parliament
and government ministries were quickly swamped with traffic, shutting
them down. Hackers defaced other sites, putting, for instance, a Hitler
mustache on the picture of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on his political
party's Web site.
The assault continued through the weekend. "It was like an Internet
riot," said Hillar Aarelaid, a lead specialist on Estonia's Computer
Emergency Response Team, which headed the government's defense.
The Estonian government began blocking Internet traffic from Russia on
April 30 by filtering out all Web addresses that ended in .ru.
By April 30, Aarelaid said, security experts noticed an increasing level
of sophistication. Government Web sites and new targets, including media
Web sites, came under attack from electronic cudgels known as botnets.
Bots are computers that can be remotely commanded to participate in an
attack. They can be business or home computers, and are known as zombie
When bots were turned loose on Estonia, Aaviksoo said, roughly 1 million
unwitting computers worldwide were employed. Officials said they traced
bots to countries as dissimilar as the United States, China, Vietnam,
Egypt and Peru.
By May 1, Estonian Internet service providers had come under sustained
attack. System administrators were forced to disconnect all customers
for 20 seconds to reboot their networks.
Newspapers in Estonia responded by closing access to their Web sites to
everyone outside the country, as did the government. The sites of
universities and nongovernmental organizations were overwhelmed.
Parliament's e-mail service was shut for 12 hours because of the strain
Foreign governments began to take notice. NATO, the United States and
the E.U. sent information technology experts. "It was a concerted,
well-organized attack, and that's why Estonia has taken it so seriously
and so have we," said Robert Pszczel, a NATO spokesman. Estonia is a new
member of NATO and the E.U.
The FBI also provided assistance, according to Estonian officials. The
bureau referred a reporter's calls to the U.S. Embassy in Estonia, which
said there was no one available to discuss American assistance to the
On May 9, the day Russia celebrates victory in World War II, a new wave
of attacks began at midnight Moscow time.
"It was the Big Bang," Aarelaid said. By his account, 4 million packets
of data per second, every second for 24 hours, bombarded a host of
targets that day.
"Everyone from 10-year-old boys to very experienced professionals was
attacking," he said. "It was like a forest fire. It kept spreading."
By May 10, bots were probing for weaknesses in Estonian banks. They
forced Estonia's largest bank to shut down online services for all
customers for an hour and a half. Online banking remains closed to all
customers outside the Baltic States and Scandinavia, according to Jaan
Priisalu, head of the IT risk management group at Hansabank, a major
"The nature of the latest attacks is very different," said Linnar Viik,
a government IT consultant, "and it's no longer a bunch of zombie
computers, but things you can't buy from the black market," he said.
"This is something that will be very deeply analyzed, because it's a new
level of risk. In the 21st century, the understanding of a state is no
longer only its territory and its airspace, but it's also its electronic
"This is not some virtual world," Viik added. "This is part of our
independence. And these attacks were an attempt to take one country back
to the cave, back to the Stone Age."
© 2007 The Washington Post Company
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