Open secrets

India’s cybersecurity vacuum has been thrown into stark focus, as a team of Toronto-based researchers revealed that “agents of the Chinese state” have been prying on vital official information — from Northeast security to Naxalite dossiers, missile defence and diplomatic secrets. The spy network was unearthed when the Dalai Lama’s computer systems were being inspected; its hackers had compromised computers in the National Security Council secretariat, (the hub for intelligence reports and strategic analysis) as well as in various Indian embassies. China has officially shrugged off responsibility, but the fact remains that malicious attackers have been operating from Chinese territory.

Cyberspace is a still unregulated frontier where real-world tensions can shade into active aggression — cybercrime, cyber espionage, cyber terror, and cyber attack have become big threats to national security. The US is paranoid about its power grid being disrupted; and, as more and more Indian official information inevitably goes online, we too will have more to lose from virtual spies and attackers. At a few keystrokes, they can inflict immense damage — unlike physical aggression or spying, cyber-war can paralyse systems with lethal simplicity.

India has taken steps to barricade itself; but we need a concerted cybersecurity policy. We live in a spaghetti bowl of virtual connections; but it is difficult to reduce network vulnerabilities unless private companies and citizens are also vigilant. Software manufacturers must cooperate with enforcement officials, and there must be strong legal liability for vulnerable software. Cybersecurity architecture needs to be strengthened at every level of procurement of IT products and services, in order to shield government-connected systems. Recog nising cyberspace as a “strategic national asset”, the US is currently mulling a cybersecurity post. UK, Germany, France, China and North Korea are known to be developing their own capabilities, and India must ramp up its preparedness as well. Global cooperation is needed to thwart borderless digital armies.