FSB agent tried to penetrate computer networks

Risto Berendson
, uuriva toimetuse juht
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Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters/Scanpix

An agent of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), arrested at the Narva border crossing point during the weekend, tried to covertly access state agency computer networks. His attempts were allegedly unsuccessful.

The suspect is a young man with a very high IT skills proficiency. He arrived in Estonia «some time ago» with a valid visa. This was supposed to dispel all suspicions.

The Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) believes the man was instructed by the FSB on what to do and take interest in while still in Russia. The young man was supposed to use his skills to find weaknesses in the computer networks of Estonian state agencies.

There are several ways to penetrate networks. A perpetrator can try to access protected Wi-Fi networks or attempt to physically access data transmitters of state agencies. The agent allegedly tried both approaches, which led to his discovery by the authorities.

Estonia has dozens of institutions the data in the internal networks of which is of interest to the FSB. From ordinary military units and military chatter to medical records that can give special services a brilliant opportunity to influence and recruit people. We can add to the list IT systems of law enforcement agencies etc. – information that is on some level confidential.

Postimees does not know which agencies« networks the agent tried to access, while there was no connection to ID-card security issues or Estonia's EU presidency. Because KAPO needed proof of the agents actions, and because there was no direct and acute threat to the state, the agency placed the spy under surveillance and allowed him to continue his activities.

Authorities made sure of the man»s connection to the FSB. This constitutes a noteworthy achievement for KAPO, while US special services are having a hard time proving FSB«s involvement in the country»s presidential election.

Postimees has been told that all attempts by the IT specialist to penetrate Estonian networks failed. The man was apprehended a few hundred yards from the Russian border in Narva while on his way back during the weekend.

Harju County Court placed the man under arrest, following the prosecutions request, on Monday, November 6. The person is suspected of non-violent acts against the Estonian state as an agent of the FSB and making preparations for a computer crime. He is looking at a maximum sentence of 15 years if convicted.

The Russian special service has not commented on the news. This is standard practice in the intelligence world. Just as it is standard practice to physically deploy IT agents in foreign countries. «It would be difficult for the FSB to mount a credible defense in the case of attempts to penetrate the networks of other countries from abroad. However, if a random Russian tourist is caught doing the same thing in a foreign country, it is always possible to deny knowledge and involvement,» an intelligence expert told Postimees.

«This case shows once again that data in our e-state systems is of interest to special services of other countries,» said Minister of the Interior Andres Anvelt. «And that our people«s data is the best way to find risks and opportunities for recruitment.»

Public prosecutor in charge of the case, Inna Ombler, said the prosecution is working with the internal security service to ascertain the facts of the case. «We can say, without going into detail, that major damage was avoided,» Ombler said.