NATO Allies Set Up Cyberdefense Center

APRaul Rikk
BRUSSELS -- Seven NATO allies signed a deal Wednesday to create a research center in Estonia to boost the alliance's defenses against cyber-attacks, which are seen as a growing threat to military and civilian computer networks.

Estonia was exposed to an unprecedented wave of cyber-attacks last year that crippled government and corporate computer networks following a dispute with Russia over the relocation of a Soviet war memorial. Many Estonians suspect that the Kremlin was behind the virtual strikes, but Moscow has denied involvement.

Defense chiefs from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Italy, Spain and Slovakia all signed the agreement to provide staff and funding for the center in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

"It is a cooperative effort to bring all the best minds together in cyberdefense," said U.S. General James Mattis, NATO's top commander in charge of the modernization of the alliance's armed forces. "We cannot say that we are not going to defend the web that everybody needs."

The United States will join the project as an observer, and other NATO nations may join later.

The agreement was signed during a regular meeting of chiefs of defense staff from the 26 allies.

The cyberdefense center will be operational in August, although the formal opening is planned for 2009. A staff of 30 specialists will conduct research and training on cyberwarfare. They will also be ready to help NATO members respond to any future attacks against computer networks.

Timur Nisametdinov / AP
The building that houses the new cyberdefense center in Tallinn, Estonia.
"The attacks against Estonia last year were cyberterrorism, to say the least," said Major Raul Rikk, who heads the center. "The job of the center is to create new capabilities to fight against new threats."

Experts will be recruited from various NATO member states and fields of work, including information technology, science, military and finance, Rikk said in Tallinn.

"The center is very unique in that sense," he said.

However, some experts remain doubtful about the usefulness of the new center. Russian security analyst Andrei Soldatov said it was likely to misinterpret the real threat of cyberterrorism.

"Terrorists don't attack sites that are the best defended -- like a defense ministry -- but sites that offer public services, such as banks. You can't protect this sector with one big shield," he said.

Estonia, one of Europe's most Internet-savvy nations, proposed the center back in 2003, but it was only after last year's cyber-attacks that alliance leaders were fully convinced it was needed, Rikk said.

The assault on Estonia's system came days after Estonia decided to relocate a Soviet war monument from downtown Tallinn, triggering riots among the country's ethnic Russian minority and infuriating Moscow.

The web sites of major banks, newspapers and government ministries were jammed by so-called denial-of-service attacks, in which hackers overload a single network by directing massive traffic to the site.

Some sites simply crashed. Others, such as those of banks, were forced to restrict foreign access, leaving Estonian account holders traveling abroad without access to cash.

Investigators said as many as 1 million remotely steered computers were used in the attacks.

Ironically, the center lies just opposite the military cemetery where the war monument was relocated.