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Cyber Attacks in Estonia

NATO assisted Estonia in combating the cyber attacks and has voted to work with member governments to improve cyber security.
NATO assisted Estonia in combating the cyber attacks and has voted to work with member governments to improve cyber security.
Image courtesy NATO

­On April 27, 2007, the Estonian government moved a controversial Soviet-era World War II memorial from a square in the capital city of Tallin to a more secluded location. Protests erupted in Estonia and Russia, where Estonia's Moscow embassy was blockaded. The Russian government protested vociferously and issued threats. (Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War, and a large Russian minority lives there.)

Weeks of cyber attacks followed, targeting government and private Web sites. Some attacks took the form of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Hackers used hundreds or thousands of "zombie" computers and pelted Estonian Web sites with thousands of requests a second, boosting traffic far beyond normal levels.

The Estonian government compared the cyber attacks to a terrorist attack. At first, many people thought the attacks were being committed by the Russian government, causing some pundits to label the events the first "cyber war." It's now believed that the Russian government didn't directly participate in the attacks, although they did contribute a lot of angry rhetoric. Instead, incensed Russians were likely behind most of the attacks.

The Estonian cyber attacks weren't larger than other DDoS attacks, but they were able to shut down some sites for a time. The government didn't lose any infrastructure, but the events proved extremely time consuming, expensive to combat and indicative of weaknesses in Estonia's cyber security.

The Estonia cyber attacks were not the first of their kind. Previously other political grievances have spilled over into hacker feuds. Indian and Pakistani hackers have in the past launched barrages of viruses and DDoS attacks as part of the long-standing tensions between those countries. Israeli and Palestinian hackers have launched tit-for-tat attacks, defacing each others' Web sites. But the weeks of cyber attacks suffered by Estonia appear unique because they, for a time, consumed the affairs of an entire government and drew the attention of the world.

Estonia, a country considered to be especially "wired," weathered its cyber attacks with some economic and governmental disruption, but without significant or long-term damage. How would the United States fare in such a situation? Read on to find out.