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Cablegate: Estonia Charts Legal, Military Future of Cyber


DE RUEHTL #0326/01 2661407
R 221407Z SEP 08

9/22/2008 14:07 CONFIDENTIAL

C O N F I D E N T I A L TALLINN 000326



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/21/2018




Classified by: DCM Karen Decker for reasons 1.4 (b) & (d)

1. (C) Summary and Comment: In the wake of the August cyber

attacks against government websites in the Republic of

Georgia, Estonia has provided both material and technical

assistance to Tbilisi. Lawyers at the Cyber Center of

Excellence in Tallinn have produced a legal analysis of the

status of cyber warfare under NATO's Article V. The

Ministry of Defense (MOD) is prioritizing strategic-level

cyber defense planning, and the MOD's forthcoming 2008

Cyber Defense Strategy will clarify lines of authority and

create trip-wires to declare a national security threat

during a future attack. Various Estonian experts all agree

on one thing: Georgia was the latest victim of this new

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form of warfare, and the attacks are getting more effective

each time. Estonia continues to lead international

thinking on the cyber issue, having positioned itself as a

niche expert on cyber defense based on its combination of

past experience, a high level of IT expertise and

dependence, and a small country's inevitable fears for its

existence. End Summary and Comment.

2. (C) BACKGROUND: In April and May 2007, Estonia grabbed

international headlines as it suffered from coordinated,

massive, and potentially crippling distributed-denial-of-

service attacks (DDOS) from the cyberspace. The attacks of

2007 were a wake-up call for national cyber security in

much the same way as the January 2006 Gazprom cut-off of

Ukraine was on energy security. For a period of about ten

days in late April/early May 2007, key websites of the

Government of Estonia (GOE) and private banks could not

function, or had intermittent availability, and the country

was forced to cut itself off temporarily from the World

Wide Web. Both the financial cost of these attacks, and

the parties ultimately responsible, are still unknown. The

former - if known by banks such as swedebank and SEB

Uhispank - is guarded; but the latter is widely assumed

both by the GOE and many cyber security experts to be a

network of Russian hackers guided and funded by the

Kremlin. As the story goes, these hackers used popular

Russian blog sites to instruct willing 'patriotic hackers'

to assist in punishing Estonia for the GOE's decision to

move the WWII-era Bronze Soldier monument. In addition to

enlisting 'script kiddies' who did nothing more than click

on links provided to them, or pass along a line of

malicious code, this core group of hackers acted as 'bot-

herders' thus magnifying their impact by exploiting scores

of '' or 'zombie' computers to send DDOS attacks

unbeknownst to their users. Estonia's ad-hoc defense in

April 2007, led by its national Computer Emergency Response

Team (CERT) was to first increase the capacity of state

websites to handle the massive volume of traffic, and then

- as a last resort - to pull the plug to the outside world.

Learning from Experience, and Passing it on...

--------------------------------------------- -

3. (C) Now fast-forward to the cyber attacks on Georgian

websites in July/August 2008. (NOTE: The cyber attacks

actually preceded the August 8 Russian ground assault into

South Ossetia and Abkhazia, starting with a July 21 mild

DDOS attack against the Georgian presidential website. END

NOTE.) In the wake of these attacks, the GOE has been at

the forefront of the response to assist Georgia, and the

ensuing debate within NATO and the EU on the meaning of the

attacks. The GOE response has taken the form of (1)

applied expertise, (2) legal thinking about how to

characterize and respond to cyber warfare, and (3)

strategic defense planning on institutional responses to

cyber war. In addition to humanitarian and financial aid,

Estonia immediately sent two cyber-security experts from

its CERT to assist the Georgian CERT for roughly ten days.

Meanwhile, the Estonian Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of

Excellence (CCDCOE) began an analysis of the implications

of cyber warfare both under international law and NATO

Article V. (NOTE: The CCDCOE currently has experts from

four of the 15 NATO members who have expressed a desire to

be Sponsoring Nations, including the United States. END

NOTE.) At the same time, the MOD's forthcoming 2008 Cyber

Defense Strategy will propose new institutional structures

to deal with future attacks.

Estonia's CERT Mission to Georgia


4. (C) EmbOffs met with Hillar Aarelaid, Director of CERT-

Estonia for his read on the recent assistance mission to

Georgia. Aarelaid recapped the profile of the cyber

attacks on Georgia: the country's internet satellite or

microwave links which could not be shut down (inside

Russia) were simply bombed (in southern Georgia). The

ensuing DDOS attacks, though intense for several days, had

less impact on commerce and government than in Estonia last

year, where over 90 percent of the public banks online, and

the GOE convenes virtual cabinet meetings. Yet the attacks

on Georgia were more sophisticated than those against

Estonia, and did not repeat the same mistakes. For

example, in 2007, the 'zombie-bots' flooded Estonian

cyberspace with identical messages that were more easily

filtered. The August 2008 attacks on Georgia did not carry

such a message.

5. (C) Although Aarelaid stressed that CERT-Estonia does

not have the full picture yet, he offered some assessments

of the CERT-Georgia response. Roughly "ten years behind"

Estonia, CERT-Georgia "did some stupid things" such as

failing to keep archives of collected network flow data,

which would have provided material for forensic analysis of

the attacks. However, they wisely did not waste time

defending GOG websites, he said, but simply hosted them on

Estonian, U.S. and public-domain websites until the attack

was over. (Steps, according to the CCDCOE, which could not

have been taken without the lessons learned from the 2007

attacks against Estonia.) Aarelaid felt that another cyber

attack on Estonia "...won't happen again the same way..."

but could be triggered by nothing more than rumors. For

example, what could have turned into a run on the banks in

Estonia during the brief November 2007 panic over a rumored

currency devaluation was averted by luck. Money transfers

into dollars spiked, he explained, but since most Estonians

bank online, these transfers did not deplete banks' actual

cash reserves. In terms of improving responses, Aarelaid

felt that "We are fighting a global threat locally..." but

acknowledged this may be unavoidable since, by their

nature, cyber attacks require both a real-time response and

a high degree of trust among those coordinating the

defense, seemingly impossible at the international level.

Although CERT-Estonia currently has a permanent staff of

only four, Aarelaid said he "...could hire about 200 extra

people in an hour..." if needed to respond to a future


Civil Law, Criminal Law or Article V?


6. (SBU) On the legal front, experts at Estonia's CCDCOE

quickly prepared a scholarly analysis of the possible legal

responses to cyber warfare. In "Cyber Attacks Against

Georgia: Legal Lessons Learned" the CCDCOE confronted two

of the biggest challenges to (A) determining whether a

cyber attack rises to the level of a national security

threat and (B) assigning responsibility to a state actor

who could then be the object of a legal or military

response. The report examines the potential status of

cyber attacks as an act of violence from the view of the

Geneva Conventions, the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and

NATO Article V. The authors acknowledge at the outset the

complexity of a situation where "...states use private

companies to conduct cyber attacks and thus grant the

nation deniability..." Since the North Atlantic Treaty

itself does not define an 'armed attack', the report falls

back on examinations of international law. It states that

both level of damage inflicted by a cyber attack, and the

intent of the perpetrator would factor into whether a DDOS

rises to the level of 'violence'. Considering finally the

intent of the attack, its resulting damages, destruction or

deaths (i.e. due to paralyzed emergency response networks)

and the ability of its attribution to a willing state

actor, the CCDCOE concludes that "If all questions are

answered affirmatively, there is a strong basis for

application of Article V [to cyber attacks]."

Institutional Responses: MOD and Strategic Planning

--------------------------------------------- ------

7. (SBU) Estonia's Ministry of Defense (MOD) takes cyber

defense very seriously. In a 2007 address to Estonia's

Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Minister Jaak

Aaviksoo likened a massive DDOS as "...the modern

equivalent of a 19th century naval blockade of a nation's

ports." In a September 2008 address to a CompTIA/OSAC

seminar on cyber security, Aaviksoo again put the threat of

cyber attacks in existential terms: "At a basic level, life

and liberty depend upon your ability to control the space

around you. Threats from cyberspace are national security

threats, and cyber warfare is here to stay." In response

to the attacks on Georgia, former Prime Minister Mart Laar

called on Estonia immediately to "...create state

structures for the anticipation and control of information

attacks." That is, to get better at confronting the

propaganda that accompanies a cyber war aggressor's attempt

to blind its enemy to what is happening, and drown out

competition in the battle for world opinion.

8. (C) In a meeting with EconOff, XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX, outlined MOD's position

on cyber defense and Article V. (NOTE: XXXXXXXXXXXX went to


Estonian embassy in XXXXXXXXXXXX prior to taking up his

current position. END NOTE.) MOD needs much better cyber

intelligence, XXXXXXXXXXXX said, since even the CERT sees only

a small percentage of overall internet traffic in Estonia.

Banks such as swedebank here are often used for "test runs"

of the latest, third-generation cyber attacks before these

methods are used against larger western banks. While MOD

does not take a position on whether cyber attacks should be

subject to Article V, XXXXXXXXXXXX did outline three important

considerations. First, a clear state actor is not

necessarily a pre-requisite for invocation of Article V

(witness NATO's response to the attacks on the United

States on September 11, 2001). Second, there cannot be

different standards for invoking Article V depending on the

victim's ability to respond. Thus, having a cyber defense

capability sufficient to thwart otherwise-crippling DDOS

attacks should not affect the Article V umbrella. And

third, there must be a clear idea of what Article V

collective defense would mean in response to cyber attacks.

Would it mean other members agree to host the targeted

government's websites on their servers, or other measures?

9. (C) While this debate continues within NATO and the

international community, MOD is taking steps to improve its

domestic response capability. Its forthcoming 2008 Cyber

Defense Strategy will recommend a range of measures to

increase international cooperation, raise awareness and

improve the effectiveness of national cyber defense. A key

recommendation is for the creation of a 'Cyber Security

Council' under the structure of the GOE's national security

committee which reports directly to the Prime Minister.

During a future cyber attack, and with input from the CERT,

private banks and others, this committee would make the

call whether a given cyber attack - which after all occur

all the time at low levels - rises to the level of a

national security threat. This committee would also

clarify who has the authority, for example, to unplug

Estonia from the internet. In the case of the 2007

attacks, XXXXXXXXXXXX noted, it was simply one technician who

decided on his own this was the best response to the

growing volume of attacks.


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