Russia accused over Estonian ‘cyber-terrorism’
By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow
Estonia urged Nato to develop a unified strategy against "cyber-terrorists" today after suspected Russian hackers launched a third wave of attacks on leading government, banking and media websites this week.
The three-week cyber-offensive, which has been linked to a furious diplomatic row between Russia and Estonia, is believed to be the first time that a single state has come under concerted attack by hackers.
Some officials in Estonia, one of the most wired countries in the world, have suggested that the Russian government was behind the campaign.
The Baltic state has suffered serious electronic disruption since it decided to relocate a controversial Soviet war memorial, a move that prompted Russia to threaten sanctions.
The presidential administration’s website was inaccessible for six days late last month while those of most cabinet ministries suffered reduced connection speeds after they too were targeted.
Jaak Aaviksoo, the Estonian defence minister, said about one million computers worldwide were used to cripple government and corporate sites, adding that his government had "identified in the initial attacks IP numbers [computer addresses] from the Russian governmental offices.
"We clearly feel it as a threat to national security," he said.
However, he cautioned that there was "not sufficient evidence" of a Russian governmental role, "but it indicates a possibility".
While there has been greater preoccupation in Tallinn with more tangible assaults on Estonian interests, including attacks by pro-Kremlin youths on its Moscow embassy and the disruption of fuel supplies, officials said the cyber-attacks set a worrying precedent.
Mikhel Tammet, a senior government official who chairs Estonia’s cyber-defense co-ordination committee, said that Nato and the European Union had to establish how to respond to cyber warfare before other members fell victim to a very 21st Century weapon.
"This is a kind of terrorism," he said. "The act of terrorism is not to steal from a state, or even to conquer it. It is, as the word suggests, to sow terror itself. If a highly IT country cannot carry out its every day activities, like banking, it sows terror among the people.
"The EU and Nato have to work out its doctrines and position on these kinds of attacks and how to deal with them."
Estonia has launched an investigation. While the source of some of the earliest attacks has been linked to Russian government computers, including one in President Vladimir Putin’s office, there is no evidence to connect the campaign to the Kremlin.
This is because the hackers used robots to infiltrate hundreds of thousands of computers around the world without their owners’ knowledge.
The infected machines would then have flooded Estonian websites with bogus information in what is known as a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack.
It is believed that hackers have infected up to a quarter of the world’s computers, making tracing the true culprits almost impossible.
Whether the Kremlin was involved, or not, some observers say that the level of anti-Estonia hysteria it has whipped up might have encouraged nationalist hackers to take matters into their own hands.
Thousands of ordinary people are believed to have joined in after instructions on how to carry out a DDoS attack were posted on dozens of Russian websites.
While most Estonian ministry websites are now functioning normally after technicians blocked hostile internet portal addresses, some companies in the banking and media sector say they are still encountering problems.
Estonia was expected to feature heavily at an EU-Russia summit which began in the Urals city of Samara today.