Terry Zink: Security Talk

Discussing Internet security in (mostly) plain English

Cyberwarfare 101: Case Study of a Textbook Attack, part 1

Cyberwarfare 101: Case Study of a Textbook Attack, part 1

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This is part of a series on cybersecurity originally published by Stratfor on April 18, 2008.

Summary

One of the most mature instances of a cyberwarfare attack was an assault on Internet networks in Estonia in late April and early May of 2007. The Russian government was suspected of participating in — if not instigating — the attack, which featured some of the key characteristics of cyberwarfare, including decentralization and anonymity.

During the night of April 26-27, 2007, in downtown Tallinn, Estonia, government workers took down and moved a Soviet-era monument commemorating World War II called the Bronze Soldier, despite the protests of some 500 ethnic Russian Estonians. For the Kremlin — and Russians in general — such a move in a former Soviet republic was blasphemy.

It was also just the kind emotional flash point that could spark a “nationalistic” or “rally-around-the-flag” movement in cyberspace. By 10 p.m. local time on April 26, 2007, digital intruders began probing Estonian Internet networks, looking for weak points and marshaling resources for an all-out assault. Bursts of data were sent to important nodes and servers to determine their maximum capacity — a capacity that the attackers would later exceed with floods of data, crashing servers and clogging connections.

A concerted cyberwarfare attack on Estonia was under way, one that would eventually bring the functioning of government, banks, media and other institutions to a virtual standstill and ultimately involve more than a million computers from some 75 countries (including some of Estonia’s NATO allies). Estonia was a uniquely vulnerable target. Extremely wired, despite its recent status as a Soviet republic, Estonian society had grown dependent on the Internet for virtually all the administrative workings of everyday life — communications, financial transactions, news, shopping, restaurant reservations, theater tickets and bill paying. Even parliamentary votes were conducted online. When Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union was restored in 1991, not even telephone connections were reliable or widely available. Today, more than 60 percent of the population owns a cell phone, and Internet usage is already on par with Western European nations. In 2000, Estonia’s parliament declared Internet access a basic human right.

Some of the first targets of the attack were the Estonian parliament’s e-mail servers and networks. A flood of junk e-mails, messages and data caused the servers to crash, along with several important Web sites. After disabling this primary line of communications among Estonian politicians, some of the hackers hijacked Web sites of the Reform Party, along with sites belonging to several other political groups. Once they gained control of the sites, hackers posted a fake letter from Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip apologizing for ordering the removal of the World War II monument.

By April 29, 2007, massive data surges were pressing the networks and rapidly approaching the limits of routers and switches across the country. Even though not all individual servers were taken completely offline, the entire Internet system in Estonia became so preoccupied with protecting itself that it could scarcely function.

To be continued in my next post.

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  • This post continues on from my previous post on the cyberattack on Estonia in 2007. During the first

  • A couple of weeks ago, an article appeared on arstechnica.com asking the question "Should cybersecurity

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