NATO to strengthen cyber defence role

The military alliance has agreed to set up a new body to coordinate responses to cyber attacks carried out against its members and gather intelligence to prevent them from happening in the future, a NATO official said.

It is expected that the move will be endorsed at the NATO summit which will take place in April in Bucharest, Romania. “There is agreement to set up a new body to share intelligence and coordinate actions against cyber crime,” said Major General Georges D’Hollander, who leads the NATO agency dealing with such capabilities.

The first role of the new authority would be to gather intelligence about cyber crime and potential acts of cyber terrorism. “First, we have to be able to identify who brings the attack,” the official said at a conference organised this week in Brussels by the Security and Defence Agenda (SDA) think tank.

Indeed, it is often very difficult to understand where an attack comes from. “Recently, the United Kingdom’s official servers received an attack, which was originally deemed to be from North Korea or Latvia. But later it was discovered that it came from a 16-year-old teenager from London,” explained Professor Peter Sommer, an expert on security of information systems at the London School of Economics (LSE).

At the same time, the alliance has to improve its coordinated response in case of attack. “It seems to be an Article 4 issue,” said General D’Hollander. Article 4 of the NATO Treaty reads: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

So far NATO has concentrated its efforts against cyber attacks on protecting its own communication system. “The question is if now we are going to extend the policing to other sensitive infrastructure,” a NATO official told EURACTIV.

In the recent attack on Estonia, which is one of the most wired economies in the world, servers of national bank and public websites were blocked. “In my country 90% of tax declarations are carried out through the Internet. You can image the feeling of vulnerability of my people when those services were made unavailable due to an attack,” explained Estonian Defence Minister Jaak Aaviksoo.

"Events in cyberspace can affect our life at a large scale in the moment we perceive them as a national security threat," said Estonian Denfence Minister Jaak Aaviksoo during the SDA conference in Brussels.

He reiterated his country's accusation that Russia was behind the plan. "There are no fingerprints on the Internet. Therefore we do not have yet concrete evidence of the Russian involvement. But there are several clues. Just think that all those attacks took place according to Moscow time," he said.

"Allegations remain allegations," was the reaction of Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov.

NATO's line on cyber crime was repeated by its secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, in February: "Cyber defence is a national responsibility, but NATO can offer consultations in case of serious cyber attacks. There is agreement on the concept as far as cyber defence is concerned. It's now a matter for further fine-tuning this concept," he said during the meeting of defence ministers in Vilnius.

"The first priority in the field of cyber crime is to discipline the way we talk about the subject, also because the diagnosis of events is very difficult. We have to always be sure that attacks are brought about by real terrorists and not crazy teenagers," said Professor Peter Sommer, an expert on security of information systems at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Cyber crime climbed up NATO's agenda in the wake of the cyber attacks against Estonia last spring which crippled "national critical infrastructure" such as bank and telecommunications servers.

The attacks took place in May 2007 after the Estonian government decided to relocate the statue of a Red Army soldier erected during the Soviet era. The move irritated Russia and the ethnic Russians living in the Baltic country. Estonian authorities accused Moscow of perpetrating the attack, but no "smoking guns" have been found.

Following this event, NATO defence ministers discussed developing a common policy to tackle cyber wars and cyber warfare in their meeting in Vilnius on 8 February. "Ministers agreed that NATO should have a substantial policy on cyber defence outlining the Alliance's role in that field," reads the press release issued by the military organisation after the meeting.

  • 2-4 April 2008: Nato summit in Bucharest.

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