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May 22, 2007

e-Stonia Cyberattack Followup [8:30 am]

An old-fashioned diplomatic dispute plays out in cyberspace

Elsewhere, this might not have mattered quite so much. A defense information specialist from another newish NATO member state told me, somewhat ruefully, that his country wouldn’t be vulnerable to a cyberattack because so little of its infrastructure is sophisticated enough to use the Internet. But Estonia—”e-Stonia” to its fans—practices forms of e-government advanced even by Western European standards. Estonians pay taxes online, vote online, bank online. Their national ID cards contain electronic chips. When the country’s Cabinet meets, everyone brings their laptop. When denial-of-service attacks start taking down Estonian Web sites, it matters.

[...] Both the anonymity and the novelty may turn out to be part of the appeal, particularly if, as some in NATO now believe, the attacks are Russian “tests,” both of the West’s preparedness for cyberwarfare in general and of NATO’s commitment to its newest, weakest members in particular. Some believe the Russian government is now playing with different tactics, trying to see which forms of harassment work best: the verbal attacks on Estonia, the Russian oil pipeline to Lithuania that mysteriously turns out to need repairs, or the embargos on Polish meat products and Georgian wine.

If that is the case, then surely the lesson of the last three weeks is that cyberwarfare has a lot going for it: It creates no uproar, results in no tit-for-tat economic sanctions, doesn’t seem like a “real” form of warfare, and doesn’t get anyone worried about Europe’s long-term energy needs. NATO did, in the end, quietly send a few specialists to Estonia, as (even more quietly) did the Pentagon. A few Europeans complained a bit at a summit over the weekend, too. But there the affair will end—until the attacked Estonian government in cyberspace comes back online, better armed for the next battle.

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