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Bush on cyber war: 'a subject I can learn a lot about'

Real gov network strike might be scarier than botnet DDoS

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When the presidents of the USA and Estonia met on Monday, cyber warfare was still very much on the Estonian agenda.

Estonia has recently cooled its jets somewhat on the issue of the serious DDoS attacks it suffered in recent months. Initially, the Estonian Government suggested that the Russian Government had mounted a purposeful digital assault, leading to a wave of wide-eyed "cyber-war!" headlines in the Western media.

But Estonia is a NATO member, and no one else in the alliance wanted to hear about a Russian attack on a member state. That would have to be treated as a Russian attack on them all, and so the other nations might have had to respond. Relations with Russia are fraught enough as it is, without an added internet scuffle.

Once Estonia calmed down and adopted a new position - that the DDoS attacks were "terrorist" or "criminal" in nature - NATO was quite happy to rally round with offers of assistance, though nothing terribly concrete.

And it has to be said, the Estonian cyber assault bore more the hallmarks of a criminal effort rather than a sophisticated spook/military one. Large botnets - a standard net-crime tool - were employed. Many of the machines were Russian, but that's entirely normal. Many of the more prominent net villains operate in or through Russia, and a good proportion are actually Russian and thus likely to be mildly cheesed off by the removal of Soviet-era war memorials in Estonia - the apparent trigger for the attacks.

Governments, by this point in time, might be expected to manage something a little more subtle and effective than botnet DDoS. Security researchers working in secret labs worldwide have no incentive to publish vulns they come across, and no reason to use exploits they develop until they have a job to do (other than to test them within their own closed networks). A serious assault launched by a government that had invested resources over time could be expected to involve a number of previously unknown techniques.

That's more the sort of thing that might be brewing in the black labs of the new US air force cyber command, and has probably been going on for some time at the American NSA, British GCHQ and other places - not least the dedicated info-war units being set up by the Chinese.

It's probably true, as President Bush said yesterday in a joint statement with the Estonian leader Toomas Hendrik Ilves, that cyber attack is a subject that he personally "can learn a lot about". But that doesn't mean the US is wide open to cyber attack, or incapable of mounting digital thrusts of its own.

Indeed, Ilves admitted that "the United States and Israel and Denmark have come under cyber attack before". They just didn't shout about it so much - though to be fair, they don't have the resurgent, hardline-once-again Russians throwing their weight about close by. Physically close by, that is - in theory it ought not to matter for this purpose that Russia is right next to Estonia, but it does. Meatspace is still more important for threatening people than cyberspace.

As James Andrew Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Centre for Strategic & International Studies, said in the weekend New York Times:

“The idea that Estonia was brought to its knees - that's when we have to stop sniffing glue."

The cyber "war" is, in fact, almost certainly well under way and has been since well before the Estonian DDoS scuffle. But this is a war fought within an architecture mainly developed in America - even the "Great Firewall of China" has been built with the assistance of US companies. It's a war where money and physical locations and tools will be key, perhaps even more than technical skill - thus a war which the US and its allies are uniquely well-equipped for.

There's probably no great need for Westerners to panic about it; and even the Estonians might relax a little.®

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