Thursday, May 17, 2007

A far away cyberspace of which we know little

Unnoticed by most people and apparently most governments too, an EU member state and NATO country has been invaded in recent weeks- at least in cyberpace.

The country in question is Estonia and the "invader" is Russia. Estonia foolishly/bravely/insensitively/arrogantly (delete according to political or national standpoint) chose to move a large bronze war memorial to fallen Soviet soldiers who liberated Estonia from the Germans. That the Soviets then proceeded to occupy Estonia and make it a Soviet republic for 40 years is another matter and the cause of why feelings are so divided in Estonia.

The Soviet legacy, amongst other things, is the fact that a third of Estonia's small 1.4 million population are ethnic Russians. Many rioted when the memorial was moved resulting in hundreds of arrests and one death. At the same time a concerted cyber attack was launched on Estonian press, government ministries, banks and investment companies. Some of the cyber attackers have been traced to Kremlin registered IP addresses.

As a booming Baltic economy with a highly internet connected society, it is particularly vulnerable to such attacks. In the internet age you don't need jets to cause bomb damage an economy- if you shut down key internet sites for a few days or weeks, revenue is lost and confidence is damaged for investors resulting in a not disimilar effect to conventional attacks.

Of course there are crucial differences. No one is killed in such attacks, at least not yet. Although as systems become yet more computer dependent that cannot be beyond the realms of possibilty if enough transport/health/power related systems are crashed.

I am no fan of Estonia. Moving a war memorial seems insensitive at the best of times. I have walked round beautifully maintained cemetries of invading Brits in Turkey. If Attaturk could respect fallen enemies then surely a modern European democracy can respect the memory of those who died defeating Nazi invaders.

Of course it is impossible to put yourself in Estonian shoes and appreciate the full meaning of their history.

Yet one thing is clear, Russia is awakened and is testing the water. NATO and the EU have no agreed sanctions for cyber attacks on a large scale. Tanks are unlikely to follow just yet but with the US otherwise occupied, the UK overstretched and the European armies at their generally feeble levels of strength, there is arguably not much stopping Russia marching into "its own backyard". Will Estonia become another "far away country of which way know little"*. Estonian cyberspace already has that status.

* The words of Neville Chamberlain to describe Czechoslovakia when Germany invaded in 1938

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