For most people, computer problems are usually a virus that slows things down, or perhaps a document is lost when the computer crashes and we have to re-boot and re-write the document.
The Estonian cyber center in Talinn is affiliated with NATO
There are, however, bigger and scarier threats out there in cyber space, be they from governments, or from rogue independent hackers. And the reality is that a lot of damage can be done by a lone individual working from one computer.
One of the most important think tanks in the world when it comes to assessing cyber threats, cyber warfare or cyber terrorism, is the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence (CCDOE) in Tallinn, Estonia.
First cyber war was against Estonia
Estonia was the victim of cyber attacks in 2007. Russian hackers, angered by the city of Tallinn for moving a Russian war memorial to another location, allegedly attacked the Web sites of many Estonian institutions.
Estonia is particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks because it is one of most wired countries in the world. Nearly everyone in Estonia conducts banking and other daily activities on line. So when the cyber attack occurred, it nearly shut Estonia down.
It was the world's first known example of cyber warfare and since then every national security entity in the world has come to Tallinn to learn from this NATO-affiliated center.
Lt.Col Ilmar Tamm is the head of the Cyber Defense Center in Tallinn Estonia
“Our main goal here is to conduct post-incident analysis and research trying to identify what was the root cause, what was the potential motivation and what could be the potential threats and trends for the future,” says Lt. Col Ilmar Tamm, the center's director.
The CCDOE had its genesis in 2004 when Estonia came up with the idea of developing a center devoted to analyzing cyber threats. They then proposed the idea to NATO and it was accepted.
“The center is not an operational center. So we are not here 24 hours a day seven days a week monitoring the networks and doing network defense as such,” said Tamm. “Incident handling and such type of operations are still carried out by national institutions, by certain NATO institutions if NATO networks are involved and of course the private sector is doing their own work on their networks.”
Oddly enough, when it comes to personal computer security, everyone can do a pretty good job of protecting their data.
“Some of the problems we are facing in cyber space today is that users don't really know how to protect their computers,” Tamm acknowledged.
Ultimately, your computer problems will be in direct proportion to how much you put online.
“Probably the biggest concern we all have to think about is how much information we upload to the network, where we store it and how we store it,” Tamm said. “What type of consequences it will provide your well being and your life when you lose this information is your starting point.”
As it is a think tank, there are a number of individuals who sit around and think of worst case scenarios.
Worst case scenarios
Rain Ottis gets paid to think up scary Internet scenarios
Rain Ottis is an Estonian who went to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is one of those individuals who is paid to think strategically about cyber warfare.
“What I do is mostly theoretical. So I work on concepts, I work on strategies,” says Ottis.
Information gathering by governments about individuals as well as governments has been revolutionized by the Internet.
“In terms of what is potentially scary today, intelligence has moved into this area and they are doing quite [an] effective job I think in terms of getting access to information that previously would have taken enormous investment in terms of human intelligence, and today it is just so much simpler because the same tools that criminals use to steal your account passwords, to steal your credit card information, basically the same tools can be modified and adapted for gathering intelligence.”
How will wars be fought in the future? Certainly, there will be an IT component to it.
“Is there a way to actually wage warfare, in terms of making your opponent do what you want, surrender or move to a different location, or maybe just turn off their defenses and troops can capture enemy installations?” asks Ottis.
Ottis thinks that this would be difficult to do on a tactical level. It is difficult to turn off a tank as it is not really dependent on a network to work.
“But if you look at if from a strategic level I think it is much easier, in conceptual terms to take down a nation by taking down their economy or their communications. So yes the military could still be fighting fit, 100 percent effective but who cares. The economy has collapsed, sooner or later they are going to have to pull the troops back and with this strategic cyber attack you could potentially win a war without ever firing a bullet in anger,” says Ottis.
Most technologically advanced countries these days are testing the cyber defenses of others. The news is constantly filled with reports of the Pentagon or European Union institutions being hacked by unknown entities.
It is such a pressing issue that President Barack Obama has declared he will appoint a Cyber Czar to oversee US cyber preparedness.
In the meantime, the Estonians at the CCDOE will continue to think up the worst case scenarios and study the Internet to find ways to thwart rogue elements from disrupting the online lives of millions of people around the world.
Editor: Chuck Penfold