Latvia – a cyber-terrorist off-shore?

26. February, 2003


Ojars Kalnins

Foto: I. Pumpure

If an anti-American cyber-terrorist is preparing to break into the security systems of the Pentagon, NATO or some other US defense organisation, he will look for a neutral country to use as an “off-shore” location for his cyber-attack. For example, Latvia, if we stick to the myth that isolationism brings security.

In Jekabs Jansevsks’ novel “The Forest People,” two young girls from a 17th century baronial estate venture deep into the woods of Kurzeme and are taken prisoner by a Latvian family living in the middle of the forest. The forest dwellers won’t release the girls because they believe that isolation from the outside world is their impregnable security guarantee. Jansevks describes the isolated lifestyle of the Latvian rural homesteader in vivid detail – even nearby Jelgava or Riga seem foreign and dangerous to them. But in the 21st century, neither Latvia’s rural homesteaders nor city-dwellers, nor even the country as a whole can hide away deep in the forest and sink into quiet complacency.

When our forebears founded the Latvian state, we actively engaged ourselves in international politics. Statehood means nothing if other states do not recognize it and, moreover, Latvia’s statehood, sovereignty and independence are, in large part, dependent on our relations with the other countries of the world. If we co-operate with others we can hope to assure our security. If we turn away and inward then the influence of world politics on our state becomes unpredictable. We are surrounded by numerous countries both geographically and politically and, in contrast to the forest people, we can’t help but establish relations with these states.

To develop and regulate these relations, we have joined international organizations (the UN, the WTO, the OECD) and have expressed our desire to take part in military and economic alliances (NATO and the EU). This participation brings benefits, but also responsibilities – we must take positions on international issues.

Currently, one of the most relevant issues effecting Latvia’s security is international terrorism. Terrorism is normally associated with car bombs and biological or chemical attacks through the mail. To date, these threats have yet to appear in Latvia. Those who oppose Latvia joining an alliance against terrorism led by the US, NATO or any other country, maintain that Latvia is not a target of terrorist activity and, therefore, it would not be wise to invite this evil to our land.

It is a valid argument. Why call attention to ourselves if terrorists haven’t been interested in our country until now? But there is one form of terrorism that could grow and prosper in Latvia precisely if our country stays out of the fight against terrorism. Namely, cyber-terrorism.

In every modern country, including Latvia, infrastructure, the economy and the government are all reliant on computers and interconnected computer networks. Society depends on these structures and, if these computer systems break down for even a short while, everyone suffers. Power stations, air-traffic control systems, sanitation, banks, electronic transactions, telecommunications and many other functions depend, to a greater or lesser degree, on computer systems. The police and fire departments and medical rescue services increasingly perform their duties with the aid of computers.

At the end of 1999, many of the world’s nations were in a state of crisis over the so-called “YK2” problem and the potential damage it could cause with computer systems and networks. This crisis was the result of an oversight. But a good computer hacker could intentionally try to create a similar crisis. This has already been tried.

Hackers have already demonstrated that an educated and enterprising individual can, for a short while, break into, stall or destroy huge databases and operating systems. In the last three years, hackers have broken into the computer systems of the US government over 250 thousand times.

The British paper “The Times” reports that international hackers have squeezed more than 400 million British pounds out of the world’s banks. These cyber-terrorists can break into a system, inform the bank, threaten to destroy the system and the bank is forced to pay to eliminate the threat.

Experts believe that Al Qaeda has access to all the latest computer technology and know-how. No doubt these terrorists will use this knowledge to blackmail, threaten or extort anything they desire. The latest communications technology allows terrorists to coordinate attacks from any place in the world.

Latvia is not only integrating into the world, but simultaneously integrating into the global information technology system. We are becoming ever more connected not just with the world’s banks, but with various communications and information systems as well. As these systems are integrated, an assailant can break in from any suitable place. A cyber-terrorist will search out the most secure location, a place equipped with all the necessary connections and located as far as possible from his victim. A cyber-terrorist will look for a neutral country, which he can use as an “off-shore” location for cyber-terrorism.

Let us say that an anti-American cyber-terrorist wants to break into the Pentagon, NATO and other security systems. He can accomplish this through a laptop, connected to the internet. The longer he can work before he is caught, the greater the damage he can inflict on the system.

Knowing full well that New York, London and Brussels all have professional police forces, coordinated intelligence systems and extensive security resources, the cyber-terrorist buys a ticket to a quiet place, for example, Riga. He can set up shop in a hotel in Riga’s Old Town and get to work. How long will it take for the Americans to determine his location and catch him? What will Latvia’s reaction be, are we ready to cooperate with the world’s security structures to catch this terrorist? Is it possible that by participating in the arrest of this terrorist we might incite the ire of another terrorist?

Let us say that the Latvian government, so as to ensure its neutrality and avoid the attention of terrorists, suddenly refuses to participate in the war against Iraq in any way. Then, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that during the war in Iraq a global cyber-terrorist network begins operation. It is revealed that one cyber-terrorist is located in Riga and is providing important electronic communications support to his colleagues in other countries. If we uncover this terrorist, what do we do? We could close our eyes and say that this is not our war and not our problem. And, all the same, this terrorist will use Latvia’s territory to instigate attacks on the US and other countries connected to the war in Iraq.

In this instance, we are not the target of terrorists, but simply a useful resource. And as a resource we are, willingly or unwillingly, involved in this terrorist’s crime.

NATO cannot protect us from this form of terrorism. But NATO, the EU and the other nations of the world will have to cooperate to counter this new security threat. Along with the development of new technologies, countries are changing their security concepts and security alliances must develop as well.

In a globalized cyber-world, Latvia cannot protect itself with the myth of neutrality. In the 17th century, a fortress often turned into a prison for its inhabitants. Security, based on isolation, inhibits freedom. Today, traditional fortresses are obsolete. The thickness of their walls or distance from the attacker is no longer an obstacle to modern hi tech weapons. As a potential terrorist target or resource, we are no different than any other country in the world. International threats demand international solutions. Like it or not, to protect our security, we must join others in seeking a solution to this problem.

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