Cy­ber war – Where are we?


Cy­ber at­tacks in In­dia have been on the rise over the years, par­tic­u­larly against govern­ment sites and In­dian mis­sions abroad de­spite sev­eral lay­ers of se­cu­rity mea­sures in place to pro­tect against in­tru­sions. In one in­stance, ac­cord­ing to the Toronto-based Munk Cen­tre of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, GhostNet — a Chi­nese net­work — had in­fil­trated net­works of the In­dian Govern­ment as well as of the Dalai Lama. Not that this is not hap­pen­ing world over, ab­so­lute cy­ber se­cu­rity be­ing mis­nomer. The hot news has been Rus­sia hack­ing the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in Don­ald Trump’s favour, in­clud­ing ex­pos­ing some 60,000 e-mails of the Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign that were later re­leased by Wik­iLeaks show­ing Hil­lary in poor light.

In In­dia, the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice (PMO), Min­istry of Ex­ter­anal Af­fairs, (MEA), Min­istry of Home Af­fairs (MHA), the Na­tional

In­for­mat­ics Cen­tre (NIC) and the De­fence Re­search and Devel­op­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion (DRDO), atomic in­stal­la­tions, and mil­i­tary web­sites suf­fer hack­ing at­tacks pe­ri­od­i­cally. Last year, as many as 32 lakh debit cards be­long­ing to var­i­ous In­dian banks were com­pro­mised re­sult­ing in the loss of ` 1.3 crore, with one re­port in­di­cat­ing mal­ware in­fected ATM of Yes Bank.

Then, ‘ Vir­tual Ter­ror­ism’ is a gi­gan­tic prob­lem fac­ing In­dia; ex­am­ples be­ing dis­cov­ery in 2014 of Mehdi Mas­roor Biswas, ISIS tweeter “@ShamiWit­ness” op­er­at­ing past sev­eral years, a former NSA stat­ing more than 100 in­di­vid­u­als in­volved in Mehdi like ac­tiv­i­ties, and a Na­tional In­ves­ti­ga­tion Agency (NIA) probe show­ing tech savvy In­dian Mu­jahideen (IM) cadres use proxy servers (in US, Nepal, Canada, Pak­istan, Nether­lands, In­dia) and com­plex code to chat with e-mail ac­counts that dis­ap­pear if not ac­cessed in 24 hours, en­crypted files and com­pli­cated code lan­guage.

We also face a sit­u­a­tion where China is a cy­ber su­per­power adept in re­fined skills to un­der­take, cy­ber es­pi­onage and sab­o­tage, and Pak­istan is in­creas­ingly a ben­e­fi­ciary of China’s cy­ber war­fare ca­pa­bil­i­ties be­cause of the ex­pand­ing China-Pak­istan anti-In­dia nexus. China’s cy­ber war­fare strat­egy fo­cuses on con­trol­ling the in­for­ma­tion sys­tems of the ad­ver­sary dur­ing crit­i­cal pe­ri­ods of con­fronta­tion and this is how China plans to negate su­pe­rior US tech­nol­ogy and ob­tain ad­van­tage in the phys­i­cal bat­tle­field. There­fore, in event of an Indo-Pak con­flict, China is likely to as­sist Pak­istan at­tack In­dian com­mand and con­trol and other net­works. Ad­di­tion­ally, the Is­lamic State and Al Qaeda are re­fo­cus­ing to South Asia which in­creases the dan­ger of cy­ber at­tacks. How the en­emy is us­ing so­cial net­works to desta­bilise re­gions is vis­i­ble in J&K, ri­ot­ing in As­sam in re­cent past, plus the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign pan In­dia.

More­over, Dig­i­tal In­dia is in­creas­ingly net­work­ing the coun­try in­clud­ing crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture like trans­porta­tion net­works, power grids and fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions through on­line in­te­gra­tion, with more and more of­fi­cial data stored on­line. Req­ui­site lev­els of cy­ber se­cu­rity ap­par­ently could not be catered for in the Dig­i­tal In­dia project be­cause the costs would have gone up ex­po­nen­tially. This gives the op­por­tu­nity to our en­e­mies, rad­i­cals and ter­ror­ists to un­der­take cy­ber at­tacks. What could per­haps be done is to ex­e­cute Dig­i­tal In­dia with ad­e­quate cy­ber se­cu­rity in phased man­ner rather than race for a dead­line to com­plete ‘Dig­i­tal In­dia’ by 2019 and then start wor­ry­ing about cy­ber se­cu­rity.

Cy­ber war is a vi­tal in­gre­di­ent of hy­brid war­fare that is on­go­ing glob­ally and what we have been fac­ing past decades. Hence, fo­cus must be main­tained on this non-con­tact strate­gic as­set. In In­dia, cy­berspace is be­ing looked af­ter pri­mar­ily by the Na­tional Tech­ni­cal Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion (NTRO) op­er­at­ing un­der Re­search and Anal­y­sis Wing (R&AW). The In­dian Com­puter Emer­gency Re­sponse Team (CERT), set up in 2004 un­der Depart­ment of In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy (IT), is the nodal agency for re­spond­ing to com­puter se­cu­rity in­ci­dents. In ad­di­tion, the Na­tional Crit­i­cal In­for­ma­tion In­fra­struc­ture Cen­tre (NCIIC) carved out CERT in 2013 is to pro­tect as­sets in crit­i­cal sec­tors like en­ergy, bank­ing, de­fence, tele­com, trans­porta­tion, etc. The NSA is to over­see a public-pri­vate part­ner­ship to set up a cy­ber se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture. Log­i­cally, this would also be on the lines of the Counter Ex­trem­ism Project (CEP), a non-gov­ern­men­tal ini­tia­tive launched in 2014 with Is­raeli as­sis­tance to con­front the grow­ing threat from ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy; seek­ing to re­fute so­cial me­dia mes­sag­ing, and com­pile world’s big­gest data­base of ex­trem­ist net­works.

Though a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion, it works with govern­ments ex­ploit­ing the In­ter­net to mo­bilise so­cial me­dia to counter ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy by ex­pos­ing the threat of ex­trem­ists and mount­ing a global counter nar­ra­tive. In­dia needs sim­i­lar public-pri­vate part­ner­ship to tackle this mam­moth prob­lem. It may be re­called that Zakir Naik would have con­tin­ued to preach ha­tred with­out Bangladesh point­ing out to us Naik’s rad­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties that came to light post the ter­ror­ist at­tack on a Dhaka café. Of late, In­dia’s young hack­ers have also come of age. They have re­port­edly been suc­cess­fully ac­cess­ing Pak­istani gov­ern­men­tal net­works. As per one me­dia re­port, even the net­work of the US Em­bassy in Is­lam­abad was snooped into and an old US road map for South Asia was re­trieved, al­beit US nat­u­rally de­nied its ex­is­tence. So, the ba­sic ca­pa­bil­ity is very much there, but what is needed is har­ness­ing the youth tal­ent, a well-thought out roadmap and most im­por­tantly its im­ple­men­ta­tion; of­ten in In­dia ev­ery­one knows what is to be done but where we lack is the ex­e­cu­tion part.

Al­ready, many in­sti­tu­tions in In­dia are run­ning cour­ses in hack­ing. We need to in­vest heav­ily in IT protection, least we be­come easy tar­gets for ad­ver­saries, ter­ror­ists and crim­i­nals. In ad­di­tion to the Na­tional Crit­i­cal In­for­ma­tion In­fra­struc­ture Cen­tre, we could also es­tab­lish the fol­low­ing: one, Na­tional Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­tre for In­for­ma­tion Shar­ing and Anal­y­sis — to de­fine the meta data and data stan­dards for in­for­ma­tion shar­ing be­tween the NCIP, the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and the public and pri­vate sec­tor in­dus­try. This may be a part of NSC/ NTRO, and Na­tional IT Prod­uct Se­cu­rity Test Cen­tre (NIPSTC) to op­er­ate and main­tain a Na­tional Eval­u­a­tion and Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Scheme for IT se­cu­rity. But hack­ing and protection of own crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture and net­works is not cy­ber war­fare is all about.

It must have the es­sen­tial proac­tive el­e­ment. It is for this rea­son that the cy­ber war­fare pro­grammes of both the US and China are led by the US Mil­i­tary and the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA). In fact the PLA has gone a step fur­ther and com­bined in­tel­li­gence, tech­ni­cal re­con­nais­sance, elec­tronic war­fare, cy­ber war­fare and space war­fare un­der the newly con­sti­tuted Strate­gic Sup­port Force of the PLA, which has tremen­dous op­er­a­tional ad­van­tage. In our case, not only is the mil­i­tary kept away from the cy­ber war­fare pro­gramme, lit­tle progress has been made with re­spect to the Naresh Chan­dra Com­mit­tee rec­om­men­da­tion of 2012 for es­tab­lish­ing a cy­ber com­mand in the mil­i­tary. We must have an of­fen­sive cy­ber war­fare pol­icy and un­der­take sys­tem­atic ca­pac­ity build­ing against ad­ver­saries in­clud­ing: one, stop them from ac­cess­ing and us­ing our crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, sys­tems and ser­vices; two, stealth­ily ex­tract in­for­ma­tion from their net­works and com­put­ers in­clud­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, plans and pro­grammes of cy­ber at­tack/ war, fore­thought and prior as­sess­ment be­ing vi­tal since it only takes 300 mil­lisec­onds for a key­stroke to travel half­way around the world; three, pen­e­trate their net­works un­de­tected and stealthy in­ser­tion of dor­mant codes, to be ac­ti­vated at op­por­tune time for thwart­ing cy­ber at­tack(s); four, ma­nip­u­late and doctor ra­dio trans­mis­sions; five, de­stroy their com­puter net­works, if and when nec­es­sary; six, ma­nip­u­late their per­cep­tions by speed­ing up on­go­ing re­search in mind con­trol sciences.

In our case, not only is the mil­i­tary kept away from the cy­ber war­fare pro­gramme, lit­tle progress has been made with re­spect of the Naresh Chan­dra Com­mit­tee rec­om­men­da­tion of 2012 for es­tab­lish­ing a cy­ber com­mand in the mil­i­tary

The writer is former Direc­tor Gen­eral of In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems, In­dian Army



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