US warns cyber-attacks will increase
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A top US official on Thursday warned that cyber-attacks against governments and institutions were likely to increase in future following a series of assaults over the past month in Estonia.
The attacks, which Estonian officials say originated in Russia, began after April 27 when Estonia removed a Soviet second world war memorial from its capital, Tallinn.
“We need to prepare ourselves because this is likely only to become more of an issue in the future,” said John Negroponte, deputy US secretary of state and until recently the US director of national intelligence. He did not comment on allegations that the attacks were linked to the Russian government.
Mr Negroponte said cyberterrorism was becoming an increasing concern “as familiarity with these technologies grows and more and more actors get involved in information technology”.
Estonia’s foreign and defence ministers brought up the cyber-attacks in Brussels on Monday. European Union officials said the wider dispute between Estonia and Russia would be discussed by the EU on Friday at a EU-Russia summit in Samara, Russia.
But diplomats were unsure whether the narrower issue of the cyber-attacks would be mentioned. “The purpose of this meeting has to be to reduce the temperature between Russia and the EU,” said one EU official. “I don’t know if it’s the best occasion to bring this up.”
The attacks temporarily brought down websites and IT networks of state institutions such as the president’s office, many ministries, the parliament and the police, as well as political parties. News organisations, newspapers, and this week two of the country’s largest banks were also targeted.
The website of SEB Eesti Uhisbank, Estonia’s second largest bank, was still closed to foreign customers on Thursday. It said it suffered a cyber-attack on its website on Tuesday, forcing closure of the site for about 90 minutes. Hansapank, Estonia’s biggest bank, earlier suffered a similar attack.
“This is the first time Russia has used these kinds of attacks on another country,” Urman Paet, Estonian foreign minister, told the Financial Times last week, pointing the finger at computer servers close to the Russian government. “This fact is very worrying.”
Jaak Aviksoo, defence minister, said before Monday’s EU meeting that the sabotage “cannot be treated as hooliganism, but has to be treated as an attack against the state”.
Unsuccessful internet attacks were also launched at mobile phone networks and rescue service systems. “If these kinds of attacks had been successful, it could have had fatal consequences,” said Mr Paet.
The Estonian government believes the main goal of the attacks has been to stop it giving its side of the dispute over the Bronze Soldier war memorial, in the face of what Mr Paet called a “massive Russian propaganda and lie campaign”.
Rica Semjonova, a spokeswoman at the Estonian Centre for Informatics, a division of the ministry of economy and communications, said the centre noticed large numbers of postings on internet forums and blogs inviting people to support cyber-attacks on Estonia on about May 9. This was when President Vladimir Putin delivered a hostile speech against Estonia at the Victory Day parade in Moscow.
“It was like a riot in the internet. But it was not well organised enough to call it a war,” she said. Nato sent an official last week to help Estonia counter the attacks.
Neither Nato nor the EU has accused Moscow of masterminding the attacks, and the Kremlin has denied it was behind them.
Technical experts say those behind such attacks rarely get caught. There is some evidence that the internet addresses behind the attacks are in Russia, but it is not conclusive. Criminal organisations in Russia are often behind such attacks.
By Daniel Dombey in Brussels, Robert Anderson in Stockholm, Isabel Gorst in Moscow and Maija Palmer and Stephen Fidler in London
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