"Cyberwar" in Estonia
I had been thinking about writing about the massive distributed-denial-of-service attack against the Estonian government last April. It’s been called the first cyberwar, although it is unclear that the Russian government was behind the attacks. And while I’ve written about cyberwar in general, I haven’t really addressed the Estonian attacks.
Writer Joshua Davis was dispatched to the smoking ruins of Estonia to assess the damage wrought by last spring’s DDoS attacks against the country’s web, e-mail and DNS servers. Josh is a talented writer, and he returned with a story that offers some genuine insights—a few, though, are likely unintentional.
We see, for example, that Estonia’s computer emergency response team responded to the junk packets with technical aplomb and coolheaded professionalism, while Estonia’s leadership … well, didn’t. Faced with DDoS and nationalistic, cross-border hacktivism—nuisances that have plagued the rest of the wired world for the better part of a decade—Estonia’s leaders lost perspective.
Here’s the best quote, from the speaker of the Estonian parliament, Ene Ergma: “When I look at a nuclear explosion, and the explosion that happened in our country in May, I see the same thing.”
While cooler heads were combating the first wave of Estonia’s DDoS attacks with packet filters, we learn, the country’s defense minister was contemplating invoking NATO Article 5, which considers an “armed attack” against any NATO country to be an attack against all. That might have obliged the U.S. and other signatories to go to war with Russia, if anyone was silly enough to take it seriously.
Fortunately, nobody important really is that silly. The U.S. has known about DDoS attacks since our own Web War One in 2000, when some our most trafficked sites—Yahoo, Amazon.com, E-Trade, eBay, and CNN.com—were attacked in rapid succession by Canada. (The culprit was a 15-year-old boy in Montreal).
As in Estonia years later, the attack took America’s leaders by surprise. President Clinton summoned some of the United States’ most respected computer security experts to the White House to meet and discuss options for shoring up the internet. At a photo op afterwards, a reporter lobbed Clinton a cyberwar softball: was this the “electronic Pearl Harbor?”
Estonia’s leaders, among others, could learn from the restraint of Clinton’s response. “I think it was an alarm,” he said. “I don’t think it was Pearl Harbor.
“We lost our Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.”
Read the whole thing.