Information Warfare: State Sponsored Computer Crime

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June 16, 2007: It appears that Russia engaged in a new form of war against Estonia. Call it an Undeclared Cyber War, and it is a model for things to come. The recent Cyber War attack on Estonia, by Russians enraged that the Estonians had moved a statue memorializing Russian soldiers who had "liberated Estonia from the Nazis," hurt Estonia, and Russia denied any responsibility. The cause of the conflict goes back to the aftermath of World War I, when Estonia liberated itself from Russian rule. Russia re-conquered Estonia in 1940. The Estonians and Russians disagree over the benefits of fifty years of Soviet rule. The Russians imposed a brutal police state on the Estonians, and do not accept the fact that the Estonians were upset over this. In any event, the Estonians blamed the Russians for several weeks of Cyber War attacks, which shut down web operations for hundreds of Estonian businesses and government offices. The Russians deny everything. NATO sent technical experts to help identify the perpetrators, but refused to invoke the "mutual defense" clause of the NATO treaty. Estonia is a recent member of NATO, something which the Russians also are unhappy about.

These undeclared, and unofficial, Cyber Wars have been going on for over a decade now. And the tools available to the attackers are becoming more powerful. What's behind this are several dozen criminal gangs that undertake large scale criminal operations on the Internet. Most people see the results in the form of spam email (over 70 percent of all email is spam) and operations that secretly take over personal and business PCs, so these computers can secretly transmit spam, or huge quantities of bogus messages that shut down targeted web sites (DDOS, or distributed denial or service attacks).

It appears that China and Russia, or at least their security services, have made deals with some of the gangs. It works like this. If the secret police want some Internet based spying done, or a DDOS attack unleashed on someone, the gangs will do it, or help government Cyber War organizations do so. In return, the gangs have a safe haven. The gangs have to refrain from major operations against the country they are in, but most of the targets are in the West (that's where most of the money is). Of course, no one will admit to this sort of thing. But criminal gangs working for the secret police is an ancient practice in these two countries, something that goes back centuries.

Secure in their safe havens, some of these gangs are now going after the commercial services that try and control spam, DDOS attacks and all manner of computer crime. The gangs obviously have an interest in trying to interfere with these security companies, and are apparently feeling secure enough from retribution, and prosecution, to do so.

NATO has an opportunity to try and blow the cover of these Cyber War gangs, but it's unclear if that's where the NATO investigation is going. Russia and China can just keep denying responsibility. But in light of increasingly aggressive Chinese use of Internet based spying, now might be a good time to drag all of this out into the sunlight. If these freelance Cyber Warriors are left alone, they will be used more often intimidate and silence those who oppose the Cyber War gangsters, or their state protectors.

 


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