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Stung by cyber warfare, Estonia, NATO allies to sign deal on cyber defense center

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) – Estonia and six NATO allies sign a deal this week to provide staff and funds for a new research center designed to boost the alliance’s defenses against cyber terrorism.

The agreement to be signed in Brussels on Wednesday comes a year after the small Baltic nation was exposed to an unprecedented wave of cyber attacks that crippled government and corporate computer networks.

The attacks lasted three weeks and followed deadly riots sparked by the relocation of a Soviet war memorial. Many Estonians suspect the Kremlin was behind the virtual strikes but Moscow has denied involvement.

The attacks showed how vulnerable individual countries are to cyber warfare and underscored the need for a joint NATO response, said Estonian Maj. Raul Rikk, who heads the center.

”The attacks against Estonia last year were cyber terrorism to say the least,” Rikk told The Associated Press in a tour of the facility in Tallinn. ”The job of the center is to create new capabilities to fight against new threats.”

Despite tight security, the low-key appearance of the center makes it look like the offices of an IT company rather than a site where cyber war games are simulated. Rows of computers are lined up in classroom-like offices separated by a long corridor.

The defense ministers of NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Italy, Spain and Slovakia are to sign Wednesday’s agreement that will ensure funds and staff for the center’s operations. The United States will join the project as an observer, Rikk said.

The 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 cyber warfare. They will also be ready to help NATO members respond to any future attacks against computer networks.

Rikk said the experts will be recruited from various NATO member states and fields of work, including information technology, science, military and finance. ”The center is very unique in that sense,” he said.

At a summit in Romania last month, NATO leaders said they had adopted a policy on cyber defense stressing the need for NATO members to protect key information systems and develop the ability to counter a cyber attack.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai called the Tallinn research center ”a very valuable step.”

”Cyber defense is now something every country, every company and every individual needs to be conscious of,” he said Tuesday.

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 cyber terrorism.

”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 memorial and grave 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 that as many as 1 million remotely steered computers were used in the attacks.

Ironically, the center lies just opposite the military cemetery where the so called Bronze Soldier monument was relocated.

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