Cyberwarriors on the Eastern Front: In the line of
fire packet floods
Former senior Estonian defence official talks cyberwar
Interview Estonian government ministers and officials deep in a crisis meeting about riots on the street in April 2007 were nonplussed when a press officer interrupted them to say that he was unable to post a press release.
The initial reaction was "why are you bothering us with this" Lauri Almann, permanent undersecretary at the Estonian Ministry of Defence at the time told El Reg. "It was only when he said 'No you don't understand, I think we are under cyberattack' that anybody took notice," he explained.
Estonia, a small country of around 1.3 million people bordering Russia and the Baltic Sea, has moved swiftly since independence in 1991 to develop an advanced network infrastructure for the delivery of government and financial services. The country completely skipped the phase of banking involving cheques, for example, so that the vast majority of its citizens use online banking to pay bills and carry out other day-to-day tasks. The disruption when these facilities abruptly ceased to work was therefore all the more severe.
Both government and private sector systems in Estonia came under fierce cyber-assault in April 2007. This coincided with street-level riots that accompanied the relocation of World War II (Soviet era) memorials. The riots pitted ethnic Russians in the country against ethnic Estonians and the police.
The denial of service attacks that kicked in around two days after the street protests began left important government, banking and news media websites unavailable. The unavailability of government and news media websites was important because it prevented the government getting information out at a time of crisis. Estonia does not have BBC and CNN bureaus and the culture of using the radio to get news, if all else fails, isn't as ingrained there as it would be in the UK, for example. More Estonians rely on the web for news so the attacks left them deprived of updates.
The first wave of "brute force" packet flooding assaults was followed by more sophisticated attacks, including website defacement, and site takeovers. For example, a fake apology over the relocation of the monuments was posted on the website of one political party.
In total the attacks lasted around three weeks. "It could have been much worse," Almann explained. "We thought they might go on for up to three months. Technically the attacks we faced were nothing special," he added.
In the line of fire
Estonia responded to the cyberattacks, in part, by increasing bandwidth and organising backup hosting for government websites. The process of replicating content in the midst of the ongoing attack was unsurprisingly difficult. "Many countries refused to take our sites because they said that would put them in the line of fire," Almann said.
Speculation since the attacks, a landmark event in computer security, suggest they were fermented in the "Russian blogosphere" and may have involved criminal hackers turned patriots.
Some have suggested that the Russian government may have played a role in encouraging these attacks, a charge dismissed by the Kremlin. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, for example, pointed the finger of blame  directly at the Kremlin.
A question of attribution
Almann was more circumspect. An estimated one to two million compromised machines in 100 different jurisdictions, including the Vatican, were used in the cyberattacks against Estonia. The use of botnets, which can be rented and paid for anonymously on the digital underground, makes tracing the real source of attacks difficult, maybe impossible.
Instead of relying on purely technical attribution to find a "smoking gun" political and legal attribution also has a role to play.
Almann said that many countries helped Estonia at the time of the attacks with one important exception – Russia. "Russia failed to help put out the attacks. Repeated requests for assistance were denied, sometimes for obscure legal reasons," he told El Reg.
For example, Estonia and Russia have an agreement covering the investigation of cross-border crime which covers the exchange of info as well as the extradition of suspects who might decide to skip over the border to avoid justice. "Treaty requests for information at the time of the cyberattack were repeatedly refused or not acted upon. This refusal to co-operate provides political attribution for the attacks," Almann said.
Clueless spotters green-lit porn site for cyber carpet bombing
Just one person, an ethnic-Russian Estonian national, has been charged and convicted of the attack. Dmitri Galushkevich, 20, was fined the local equivalent of $1,200 after he was convicted of attacks against the Reform Party of Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip.
"He was not accountable as an organiser but a schoolboy providing targets via chat forums," Almann explained, adding in some instances the attackers were misdirected by their spotters on the ground.
One wave of attacks, for example, took out an adult entertainment (porn) website instead of an Estonian state security site.
Estonia's analysis of the attacks reveals that small-scale ping attacks, used to carry out reconnaissance of targets, preceded the main assaults, which came in phases. "The main phase of the attack involved voluntary political botnets, predominately located in Russia, which Almann described as "easy to block", as well as assaults of growing sophistication from compromised machines around the world.
The attacks against Estonia, the first of their kind on a country-wide level, have been studied intensively by military planners since. In 2008, cyberattacks on Georgian websites and communication facilities accompanied a ground war between Russia and Georgia.
Estonia, along with Poland, stepped in to offer backup hosting of Georgian government website. Almann argues this process needs to be more organised. "We need pan-European backup hosting for critical websites," he said.
Rules of engagement
Almann reckons that rules for the investigation of cyberattacks need to be established by more countries signing up to the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime. Russia and China and several other key countries have not signed the treaty while some countries in Europe, including the UK, have signed but not ratified the regulations.
Russia might be encouraged to sign the treaty by making it a condition of World Trade Organisation negotiations, he suggested, adding the issue of cyberconflict ought to be on the agenda of G8 talks that include Russia and the world's seven biggest economies.
Some observers have suggested that a Geneva Convention for cyberwar might be needed, an idea Almann regards as a non-starter even though he's equally adamant that cyberwar is all too real.
"With applications such as Stuxnet attacks are growing more sophisticated," Almann said. "There are really serious capabilities out there."
"However banning the use of cyberweapons is not realistic. Cyberwar is out there and everybody is involved."
Offence is the best form of attack
Plenty of governments talk about boosting the capability of their cyber-defences but very few, at least publicly, talk about cyber-offensive capabilities. Cyber-offensive capabilities might involve attacking a particular botnet of compromised PCs or disrupting the communication channels an enemy is using to co-ordinate attacks. Almann reckons most countries are developing cyber-offensive capabilities. "Sovereign nations need the capability. It's unavoidable," he said.
However establishing rules to govern the use of such weapons is something else, in Almann's opinion.
"A Geneva Convention for cyberwar is not going to work," he said. "I'm a lawyer and I wouldn't know what to write. The field is so fast-developing that you are going to get it wrong.
"This is not burning issue and shouldn't divert attention from dealing with shortcomings of critical national infrastructure systems," he added.
Preparing for the next cyberwar
Preparations for cyber-defence include running cybersecurity exercises and establishing what Almann described as "matrices of co-operation". He said: "It's better to have many people working together, and the ability to delegate decisions, than a cyber-czar," adding that Estonia was establishing an independent cyber unit in its equivalent of the voluntary part-time Territorial Army (the US equivalent would be National Guard).
Russia, by contrast, appears to have used a militia of criminal hackers to fight its battles, at least if rumours over the cyber-conflict in Estonia and Georgia are to be believed. Almann said this approach was dangerous.
"Provide the [modern equivalent] of letters of mark to cyber-profiteers, entitling them to loot or pillage when they are not working for you, is dangerous," Almann said. "Criminals can easily turn against you."
But what are cyber-defenders preparing for, exactly? The UK's defence review last year placed cyberattacks on a par with international terrorism as the greatest threats facing the UK, a judgment Almann agreed with.
Almann argued that "every military conflict is going to have a cyber-component" in future. "There are sophisticated attack scenarios but normally you never want to truly knock out your enemies' network because then you eliminate the battlefield. Instead you want to create confusion and misinformation," he said.
Cyberwar would not be limited to nation-state against nation-state conflicts, with insurgency-style cyber-conflicts also more than possible.
"The opportunities to attack in cyberspace are huge for anyone with imagination," he said.
The former top-ranking civil servant turned lawyer and university lecturer spoke to us of phishing, espionage and attacks more sophisticated than those faced by Estonia as among the threats, which might come from terrorist groups such as Al Queda as well as state-sponsored hackers or intelligence agencies. "You should never prepare for the last war," he concluded.
Some have criticised the debate on cyberwar for focusing on Hollywood-style attack scenarios of lone hackers taking out power grids, for example. However Almann reckon that cyberdefence brainstorming sessions are best run in an open environment where even "crazy ideas" can be suggested.
"You need to come up with the meanest scenarios before you discuss whether they are realistic or not," Almann said.
Almann, an experienced lawyer and diplomat, would be the first to admit he's not a technologist. For an expert take on what the real – as opposed to Hollywood-inspired – threats in cyberspace might be, we asked Chris Wysopal (AKA Weld Pond), a former member of Boston-area hacking collective L0pht, turned founder of the application security firm VeraCode. Members of the group famously testified before Congress in May 1998 that they would be able to take down the internet in 30 minutes using shortcomings of the BGP routing protocol that were endemic in international telecom networks at the time.
Although that particular hole has long been plugged, it remains the case that critical infrastructure systems are wide open to attack, Wysopal told El Reg. "The only safe way is to air-gap critical infrastructure systems," he said, adding that removable media also posed a big threat from information leakage, as the WikiLeaks case illustrates.
Wysopal agreed with Almann that most countries are developing offensive cyber-capabilities, even if they don't like to talk about it. "The equivalent of special forces units are building [cyberwar] tools. Meanwhile countries are training soldiers, the equivalent of infantry, to use those tools," Wysopal said, adding that he reckons any country with nukes is also likely to have offensive cyberwarfare capability.
"Cyber-weapons can be used to amplify the effects of other attacks or carry out cyber-sabotage, like Stuxnet. It takes an army to carry out cyberwar because there are hundreds of targets."
Attackers have a built-in advantage over cyber-defenders because of the "asymmetrical" nature of cyberwar, he concluded.
"Defence needs to plug all the holes, while those on the offence only need to find one," he said. ®