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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

One of the world's most wired countries has been hit by a wave of cyber attacks, setting off alarms that other countries could be vulnerable to a frightening new form of warfare. The country under attack is Estonia, a tiny Baltic nation that's a member of NATO. Since coming out from under Soviet domination, Estonia has become a leader in computer technology.

Since late April, hackers have been jamming the Web sites of the Estonian government and the nation's newspapers, political parties and banks. The cyber crisis began while Estonia and Russia were in the middle of a political crisis, sparked by Estonia's decision to remove a Soviet War memorial from a central square in its capitol. This led to a blockade of the Estonian embassy in Moscow and Russian threats to Estonia's oil supply.

Ian Traynor has been reporting on the cyber scuffle for the Guardian. He joins us from Brussels. Tell us what happened. How did these cyber attacks unfold?

Mr. IAN TRAYNOR: Well, these are so-called DDoS attacks, which I'm not a computer expert myself, but apparently just means Distributed Denial of Service, whereby hundreds of thousands of messages are sent to Web sites, very very intensive bombardment that basically jams them, disables them, incapacitates them and makes them unavailable for legitimate users.

So this has been going for the past three weeks in Estonia, and it seemed to be subsiding at the moment. But they were still raging earlier this week. They've been coming from hundreds sites. But the Estonians say from over a million computers all over the world, everywhere from Vietnam to Brazil.

The Estonians say that they could identify the beginning of the wave of attacks. They could identify the IP addresses - the Internet provider addresses - from some of the places that the attacks were emanating from. And these were primarily from Russia and some of them, indeed, from so-called Russian state institutions.

ELLIOTT: And how have the Russians responded?

MR. TRAYNOR: The Russians have responded by saying, basically, prove it, denying that they have anything much to do with it. But at the same time, they've been neither deploring it or been doing anything, but there's no one to suppress it if it is indeed happening from within Russia.

ELLIOTT: Just how sophisticated are these attacks? I mean, can you, by recognizing what is going on, make a connection that this has to be some sort of concerted effort that's coming from, say, a government office? Or could these just be bored teenagers?

MR. TRAYNOR: It could indeed be bored teenagers, but certainly on the scale that it has been happening, (unintelligible) far from a computerized expert(ph). From some of the people I've been speaking to, the cyber terrorism experts at NATO had caught, just for example, they said that it's quite easy to track who's responsible for this kind of thing.

And they're also saying that something on this scale is definitely orchestrated, coordinated. And it was quite systematically directed at Estonian state institutions, the presidency, every government ministry, news organizations, the biggest banks and so on and so forth. And they see it as a system of (unintelligible), and they think that it's definitely not random.

ELLIOTT: What are the implications of a cyber attack of this scope and size? NATO has sent cyber security experts to Estonia, a member country. NATO has made cyber dissent(ph) a priority. Does NATO consider these attacks a form of aggression?

MR. TRAYNOR: They don't really have any rules yet. I mean, they have the Prague summit of NATO leaders in 2002 that agreed to establish a unit specializing in cyber terrorism. Clearly, there are implications here. The Estonians themselves are saying what is the distance between a missile attack on an airfield and a cyber attack on your communication systems.

I think that the impact of these episodes has been to concentrate minds and give everyone a wake-up call, and in fact, next month there will be a meeting of NATO officials on cyber terrorism, and cyber-warfare, so to speak, will be one of the main items that they'll be discussing.

ELLIOTT: Ian Traynor is a correspondent with the Guardian newspaper in Brussels. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. TRAYNOR: No problem. Thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Coming up, an update on the quest for an AIDS vaccine with Dr. Anthony Fauci.

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ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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