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May 31, 2008

Tech, GP: Fighting back against cyber warfare

As I sit at the keyboard beginning another column, most people are thinking about the Memorial Day weekend.

Flags, parades and speeches express the nation's gratitude and solemn remembrance of efforts on behalf of our country. I think many people actually do pause at some point and reflect on the sacrifices that have been made defending our way of life.

Of course, after the jet-fighter fly-over and speeches are done for another year, mental focus usually returns to the three-day weekend, barbecue, beer, motor racing and the beginning of summer.

This year, Memorial Day should be noted for an additional element. It marked the anniversary of the first widely known instance of cyber warfare.

If you follow my column, you may remember that it was almost exactly a year ago that I wrote about a computer attack on the government and other important entities of the little country of Estonia.

I won't go into a lot of detail about it now, but the gist of it is that as the result of political disagreement over a statue in a park, an attack was launched that had quite a debilitating effect on the computing infrastructure of the country.

Now, Estonia is very advanced as far as Internet involvement in all parts of life, including government, banking, schools and even voting, more so than our own country, so it was a very big deal to the people who live there.

So a year has gone by. What's happened since then?

One person, a student, has been arrested, charged and plead guilty. Dmitri Galushkevich was fined 17,500 kroons (about $1,600) for attacking the prime minister's Reform Party website. He had a clean record before this.

Of course that was only a small part of the attack, and they say they have no other suspects. This after a year of concerted investigation by many agencies.

It seems to me that the attackers more or less got away with it.

Looking back at it, that's the most disturbing aspect of it all, to me.

Of course, you can't bring a country to its knees and not have something come of it.

It has, as they used to say in the '60s, "raised the consciousness" of governments near and far, as it should.

They have begun their governmental plod toward something like a coping mechanism for future cyber warfare. Seven NATO nations have backed the creation of a cyber defense center, to be located in Estonia, which, since it beat back last year's attack, has developed a reputation of being security-savvy.

Germany, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Italy and Spain will staff and fund the center, which will be located in Estonia's capital, Tallinn. The U.S. will initially send an observer.

I give them my best wishes for success, and a lot of credit for taking the lead in a multinational approach.

However, they have a long way to go and a short time to get there.

I can't imagine that this kind of attack will not be repeated, when you stop to think about all the political issues that plague the world. And the incidents are bound to get bolder and more effective, and very possibly more dangerous, as cyber warfare matures.

Electrical grids, municipal infrastructures of various types, military installations and a whole host of other critical systems are tied to the Internet in one way or another. The security against attack of these systems is not something I would like to bet my life, or anyone's life, on.

The arena of cyber warfare is just beginning to come into its own as a topic of concern.

Meanwhile, if you're young and inspired to do something for your country, don't think your choices are limited to soldiering with a machine gun or being a fighter pilot.

Go to school to become a computer security researcher. Some day the citizens of your country will thank you.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at