The cyberthreat is very real

Despite having a national cybersecurity policy, risks to our critical infrastructure remain. The Aadhaar concerns are valid, but India needs both offensive cyber operations and strengthened cybersecurity to deal with new onslaughts.

March 19, 2016 12:53 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

The debate in Parliament on the Aadhaar Bill, 2016, is quite revealing, says M.K. Narayanan.

The debate in Parliament on the Aadhaar Bill, 2016, is quite revealing, says M.K. Narayanan.

The debate in Parliament on the > Aadhaar Bill, 2016 , is quite revealing. Concerns expressed that the Bill contained certain provisions [Section 29(iv) and Section 33] that provide avenues for ‘surveillance’ of citizens require a discussion to remove any lingering suspicion about the government’s intentions.

The parliamentary debate reminds us of concerns expressed in the United States following whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) retention of American metadata. Mere assurances that the Aadhaar Bill contains provisions to bar sharing of biometric information and that the Unique Identification Number is limited to establishing identity will not suffice. In the U.S., concerns expressed were less about misuse and more about the NSA collecting and having in its possession large amounts of metadata which could be misused. A debate could remove latent suspicions.

The issue of privacy vs. security is a ‘hot’ subject around the world. The controversy in the U.S. surrounding Apple Inc.’s refusal to break the encryption on an iPhone that belonged to a terrorist — following a demand by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — is a variant of this debate, which in this case involves cryptography. While the FBI is insistent that Apple provide ‘backdoors’ that would let the FBI circumvent encryption, the information security community stands firmly behind Apple.

Cyberspace under relentless attack Cyberspace is today a shorthand for the myriad computing devices that constitute the Internet. The proliferation of autonomous systems, however, posits not merely new advances but also new threats. By 2020, online devices are projected to outnumber human users by a ratio of 6:1. The next impending wave — the Internet of Things — is expected to ring in even more fundamental, technical and societal changes.

Cyberspace was primarily intended as a civilian space. It has, however, become a new domain of warfare. Well before the Stuxnet cyberattack (2010) on an Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz — that was seen as a kind of ‘shot across the bow’ in the opening rounds of the cyber conflict, and demonstrated that the Internet had become a ‘free fire zone’ (and that a cyberattack could be almost as lethal as a nuclear one) — there were other instances of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. In 2007, Estonia was almost brought to its knees through a cyberattack, presumed to be by Russian hackers.

The past few years have seen successful attacks against the best-guarded installations of advanced nations. In the past two years alone, reports have been doing the rounds of cyberattacks on the Pentagon computer network in the U.S., including by the Islamic State, to gain access to the personal data of several hundreds of U.S. military personnel. The past year also witnessed a devastating attack on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. It is evident that no rule of law exists in cyberspace. The domain has already become a dangerous place.

Threats in cyberspace have waxed and waned over the years. Among the more common types of cyberattacks perpetrated by state-sponsored agencies are ‘Distributed Denial of Service’ attacks targeting critical networks. In the 1990s, ‘malware’ and ‘viruses’ were the big threats. ‘Worms’ took over in the early 2000s (Stuxnet was among the best known). A few years later, ‘spyware’ became a big thing (BadBIOS, Bitter Bugs, Heartbleed and Bash were among the most notorious). Today ‘cloud security’ is the issue. By 2020, security teams would need to determine what additional security mechanisms like encryption and authentication will be needed to check penetration and hacking.

Securing cyberspace not easy Securing cyberspace will, however, be hard. The architecture of the Internet was designed to promote connectivity, not security. Cyber experts warn that nations that are unprepared to face the threat of a cyber 9/11. The more technologically advanced and wired a nation is, the more vulnerable it is to a cyberattack.

Cybersecurity has an interesting parallel to terrorism. Both are asymmetric. Ensuring security of data, information, and communication is considerably harder than hacking into a system. The attacker has an inherent advantage in both conventional terrorism and cyberattacks. In the case of state-sponsored attacks, the challenges are of a much higher magnitude.

Defence against cyberattacks is becoming increasingly difficult. This was highlighted at the recent RSA Conference 2016 in the U.S. — the RSA is the gold standard of cybersecurity. The meet acknowledged that “adversaries” (or hackers) were becoming more creative and more sophisticated. At the same time, the industry faced a real shortage of cybersecurity talent. RSA president Amit Yoran said there are no “silver bullets” in cybersecurity. Other experts observed that the answer lay in ‘bleeding edge technology’ and ‘big data analytics’, a customised approach to specific challenges and a radically new system and data protection architecture that could turn asymmetry on its head.

The aphorism that one needs to be ahead of the curve is relevant to the technology world as a whole. Cybersecurity is somewhat unique, and rests on the fundamental pillars of mathematics and computer science. The need is to accelerate the pace at which cybersecurity specialists are produced, to meet the growing threat — one estimate puts the approaching cybersecurity talent shortage at “almost two million people worldwide”.

> Fortifying our cybersecurity The cyberthreat to India must not be minimised. The number of attacks on security, military and economic targets is going up. India remains vulnerable to digital intrusions such as cyberespionage, cybercrime, digital disruption and Distributed Denial of Service.

Given the many existing cyberwarfare scenarios, not excluding a coordinated cyberattack that could sabotage multiple infrastructure assets, erecting proper defences is vital. Anonymity and low cost have meant that even small disaffected groups — apart from hostile states and official agencies — could resort to cyber techniques. It is even possible to conjecture that terrorists could explode improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using a remote connection in cyberspace.

Advances in software are beginning to allow users to browse the Internet anonymously, bouncing actions through ‘encrypted relays’. This prevents eavesdropping, determining what sites a particular user is visiting or who the users of a particular site actually are. This could pose security problems.

The spectre of growing cyberthreat demands changes in the attitude of users of systems, a proactive approach to investment in hardening systems, better training in computer security practices, and careful engineering of things to be connected to networks. Almost certainly it would mean that certain critical computers and controls are unhooked from the network, a practice known as ‘air gapping’. Policy formulation will need to be supported by a legal framework, leading to greater cyber resilience and crisis responsiveness.

Despite having a > National Cyber Security Policy (2013), risks to our critical infrastructure remain. The Policy Framework details a series of policy, legal, technical and administrative steps, with a clear delineation of functional responsibilities among the stakeholders. In spite of instituting a National Cyber Security Coordinator (2014), internecine rivalries between the National Technical Research Organisation (the nodal agency for cybersecurity) and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology impede cooperation. Unwillingness on the part of defence and intelligence agencies to integrate their own cyber defence and cybersecurity strategies with the national strategy acts as a roadblock.

The earlier the weaknesses in our cybersecurity defences are rectified, the better prepared would we be to face ongoing challenges. China has already announced plans for comprehensive digital surveillance. China’s emphasis on ‘cloud computing techniques’, and the involvement of its Ministry of State Security in this endeavour, suggests that it is preparing for all-out offensive cyber operations. India would be a prime target.

Nations are generally chary about acknowledging their role in offensive cyber operations. The Central Intelligence Agency and the NSA of the U.S. do admit to having engaged in full spectrum offensive cyber operations. The U.S. even acknowledges having brought down ‘jihadi sites’.

The battle between attackers and the attacked is becoming still more asymmetric. Faced with potentially new cyber onslaughts, the danger to India’s economic and national security is going up in geometrical progression. To be forearmed, with both offensive cyber operations and strengthened cybersecurity, is essential.

(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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