NATO's cyber-brains gaze at the future of war

Apr 24, 2010 by Jonathan Fowler
In Tallinn, the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) has a high-security lab where the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's top cyber-minds are trying to predict the evolution of conflict in an Internet-dependent world.

Behind the walls of a high-security lab, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's top cyber-minds are trying to predict the evolution of conflict in an Internet-dependent world.

While they play down disaster-movie scenarios of total meltdown, experts warn cyber-attacks will be part and parcel of future fighting.

Tallinn is home to a cutting-edge unit known in NATO-speak as the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. The city is the capital of Estonia, whose flourishing hi-tech industry has earned it the label "E-Stonia".

"Definitely from the cyber-space perspective, I think we've gone further than we imagined in science fiction," said Ilmar Tamm, the Estonian colonel at its helm.

Its base is a 1905 building where military communications experts have toiled away since the days of carrier pigeons and the telegraph.

The centre's dozens of experts second-guess potential adversaries, gazing into what they dub the "fifth battlespace", after land, sea, air and space.

"The whole myriad and complex area makes it a very difficult problem to solve, and at the same time it keeps a very convenient grey area for the bad guys," explained Tamm.

"Many states have realised that this is really something that can be used as a weapon... That we should not ignore. It will have a future impact," he said.

"I'm not so naive that I'd say conventional will go away. But we should expect it to be more combined," he added.

Bitter experience taught Estonia -- one of the world's most wired places and a NATO member since 2004 -- all about cyber-conflict.

The minnow country of 1.3 million people suffered blistering attacks in 2007 which took down business and government web-based services for days.

"It clearly heralded the beginning of a new era," its Defence Minister Jaak Aaviksoo told AFP.

"It had all the characteristics of growing into a national security threat. It was a qualitative change, and that clicked in very many heads," he added.

The assault came as Estonian authorities controversially shifted a Soviet-era war memorial from central Tallinn to a military cemetery.

The monument, erected when Moscow took over after World War II, following independence in 1991 became a flashpoint for disputes about the past with Estonia's ethnic-Russian minority.

Tallinn was rocked by riots as the memorial was moved. Estonia blamed Russia for stoking the strife, and also claimed the cyber-offensive had been traced to official servers in Moscow.

Russia, whose relations with Estonia are rocky, denied involvement.

For Aaviksoo, cyber-attacks may "present a stand-alone security threat or a combined threat".

An example of the latter, he noted, came during Russia's 2008 war with ex-Soviet Georgia, as hackers hit Georgian websites while Moscow's troops moved in.

"Cyber-security, cyber-defence and cyber-offence are here to stay. This is a fact of life," Aaviksoo said.

In a report this month, Canadian researchers said a China-based network had stolen Indian military secrets, hacked the Dalai Lama's office and hit computers around the world.

A University of Toronto team traced the attacks to servers in Chengdu, China, but could not identify the culprits. Chengdu is home to Chinese military communications intelligence units.

"Some reports have, from time to time, been heard of insinuating or criticising the Chinese government... I have no idea what evidence they have or what motives lie behind," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

Proving a formal state role in cyber-attacks is close to impossible, because of their fluid nature.

"We're seeing opportunism in terms of citizens bandwagoning on these big events. The role of the state in this is all rather mysterious," said Rex Hughes of the Chatham House think-tank in London.

"I'm sceptical that we'll see an actual cyber-war, where countries will exclusively attack one another over the Internet," he said.

"It remains to be seen if the great cyber Pearl Harbor or 9/11 comes," he added.

Explore further: WEF unveils 'crowdsourcing' push on how to run the Web

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

SKorea and US forge deal to fight cyber attacks

May 04, 2009

South Korea and the United States have agreed to cooperate in fighting cyber attacks against their defence networks from countries including China and North Korea, officials said Monday.

'New arms race' taking shape in cyberspace: Van Loan

May 27, 2009

A "new arms race" is taking shape in cyberspace, Canada's security czar said Wednesday, lamenting ever bolder and more sophisticated attacks on government websites by Russia, China and others.

Cyber spying a threat, and everyone is in on it

Apr 10, 2009

(AP) -- Ghost hackers infiltrating the computers of Tibetan exiles and the U.S. electric grid have pulled the curtain back on 21st-century espionage as nefarious as anything from the Cold War - and far more difficult to stop.

Recommended for you

WEF unveils 'crowdsourcing' push on how to run the Web

11 hours ago

The World Economic Forum unveiled a project on Thursday aimed at connecting governments, businesses, academia, technicians and civil society worldwide to brainstorm the best ways to govern the Internet.

Study: Social media users shy away from opinions

Aug 26, 2014

People on Facebook and Twitter say they are less likely to share their opinions on hot-button issues, even when they are offline, according to a surprising new survey by the Pew Research Center.

US warns shops to watch for customer data hacking

Aug 23, 2014

The US Department of Homeland Security on Friday warned businesses to watch for hackers targeting customer data with malicious computer code like that used against retail giant Target.

Fitbit to Schumer: We don't sell personal data

Aug 22, 2014

The maker of a popular line of wearable fitness-tracking devices says it has never sold personal data to advertisers, contrary to concerns raised by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

Should you be worried about paid editors on Wikipedia?

Aug 22, 2014

Whether you trust it or ignore it, Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world and accessed by millions of people every day. So would you trust it any more (or even less) if you knew people ...

User comments : 0