The Future is Here: Russia and Estonia are living up to the fantasies of hack sci-fi authors and computer security salesmen. They are engaging in a virtual war.
The reasons for this war are pretty thin - most political insiders in Moscow dismiss this as a shallow and meaningless concoction on the part of Putin, designed mainly to distract the Russian electorate in an election year. It's old and time-worn tactic, but one that still finds favor with politicians that want to play the old magician "nothing up my sleeve" distraction game.
My friend Dave Mitchell devoted the latter part of a column on his blog to this issue, and I've had a front-row seat to some of the events as they have unfolded. In a nutshell, the Estonians took down a gaudy bronze statue of a Soviet soldier a couple weeks before the big May 9 V-E Day celebrations. Putin seized on the action (the Estonians were apparently not getting rid of the statue, just moving it to another place) and branded the Estonians as a bunch of pro-Nazi ingrates who were persecuting the ethnic Russians, yada yada blah blah.
I particularly liked the pictures of the forlorn pro-Russia protesters chasing after the Estonian ambassador's car, as it pulled away from the embassy, on its way to a vacation. The "youth groups" that are making the most noise are widely known to be paid by the Kremlin to feign outrage and generate flashy TV images.
No big deal. But in the last couple of weeks, the conflict has moved to a whole new arena - cyberspace. Estonia's economy is apparently quite web-dependent. Russian hackers have pretty much taken down the Estonian web presence through waves of DDoS attacks. (Quick explanation: DoS is "Denial of Service" which is what happens when a whole bunch of zombie robot slave computers under the control of a hacker all try to access your webservers at the same time. In real-world traffic terms, it's like sending a million cars to jam the drive-thru windows of Mickey D's.)
Check out the front page of the Moscow Times, scanned here for your convenience:
This is the story from a couple of weeks ago, when Putin gave a fiery speech during the May 9 parades, denouncing the Estonians.
The latest update from Moscow says that the tactic is starting to spread in the provocation/response pattern so familiar to anyone who's paid attention to, well, just about any of the wars in the last century or so. Viz:
Hackers this year have also attacked the sites of groups as politically disparate as the ultranationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration; the pro-Kremlin youth groups Nashi, Young Russia and Mestniye; and The Other Russia, the opposition coalition that has organized a series of Dissenters' Marches this year.
Alexander Kalugin, a spokesman for Young Russia, said a six-hour DDoS attack on his group's web site in March was likely the work of Estonian nationalists angered over its protests outside the Estonian Embassy over plans to relocate a Soviet World War II monument in central Tallinn that sparked a recent diplomatic dispute.
"We were burning Estonian banners and trampling an effigy of the Estonian president," Kalugin said.
The Movement Against Illegal Immigration had 40 of its regional web sites struck by DDoS attacks from early February to early April, said Alexander Belov, the organization's leader.
Belov blamed the security services for carrying out the attacks under the pretext of battling extremism.
I'm tempted to say that any kind of warfare that doesn't involve streets choked with bodies and rubble is an improvement - but I am uneasy. The fact that more and more people are getting hip to the idea that there are cheap and easy ways to hit below the belt; the fact that the web is still very vulnerable to this kind of thing - all that is definitely a blinking red light.