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Confronting the Threat in Cyberspace

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  • August 29, 2008
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Thomas Mathew
    Discussants: Prem Chand & Subimal Bhattacharjee

    The central premises of the paper presenter were that governements were neglecting the current threats on the Internet not out negligance but because these threats were too diffuse and inchoate. This prevented a appropriate and timely response from the state to this threat. There was a tendency to approach these threats as law and order problem , or technology problem, whereas they are of a much higher order, and could impact on national security.

    There were two parts to the equation of securing cyberspace. One was premised on the definition that “Cyberspace is composed of hundreds of thousands of interconnected computers, servers, routers, switches, and fiber optic cables that allow our critical infrastructures to work.”. Over the years, ensuring the security and integrity of the networks that connect critical infrastructure has become of paramount importance since crucial sectors such as the financial, energy, transportation and telecommunications sectors are connected through cyber networks. This applies to India as well with core areas of the Indian economy, from the financial markets to the banking sector, to telecommunications are networked, and other areas such as energy distribution and transportation are headed in that direction.

    A second part of the equation, but one that has proved to be problematic when it comes to implementation, has been securing the Internet, the vast network of networks, which has now become synonymous with cyberspace. Users of the Internet, an estimated 1.5 billion of the world’s population, vary from individuals to corporations to governments, all of whom use the same pipes for the transmission of some or all of their data and communications.

    The rise in the Internet population has meant that while the threats and vulnerabilities inherent to the Internet and Cyberspace might have remained more or less the same as before, the probability of disruption has grown apace with the rise in the number of users. At the same time, the nature of the Internet, with all the characteristics of a “global commons” means that no nation can unilaterally take on the responsibility of defending or policing networks owned variously by nation states, commercial companies and individuals. In fact, cyberspace is characterised by blurred boundaries; there are no clear demarcations between civilian and military, state and non-state, and foreign and domestic as in other domains. It is those same characteristics that make it an ideal medium for committing malafide activities which can have repercussions for national and international security.

    Characteristics of the Internet

    It is akin to a Global Commons where no nation can unilaterally take on the responsibility of defending or policing networks owned variously by nation states, commercial companies and individuals; it has blurred boundaries where there are no clear demarcations between civilian and military, state and non-state, and foreign and domestic and: the architecture of the Internetas it has evolved is that of an open all-inclusive, decentralised environment. Part of the problem is that the Internet’s organic evolution meant that security was not a consideration and trying to bring ina secure internet environment is like bolting the stable door after the horses have bolted.

    Internet War

    This has led to Internet War or I-War which can be described as a low-intensity war where actors unkown are exploiting “the ubiquitous low security” internet infrastructure to target users with malware that compromises their systems and networks. These attacks take advantages of the bugs and vulnerabilities in software, systems and networks and are perpetrated though the machinations of a hacker-criminal network-state nexus.

    The Hacker-Criminal Network-State nexus

    Criminal networks have, over the years, professionalised the business of discovering and exploiting weaknesses in software that allow them to undertake a variety of actions ranging from taking control of those computers, accessing information on those computers or rendering them unusable. Whilst hackers provide the technical expertise, existing international criminal networks have learnt how to squeeze the maximum out of these compromised computers, and have turnovers estimated in the billions of dollars. Whilst this would remain at the level of criminal activity, it has acquired dangerous proportions and impinges on national security when a state-criminal network-hacker nexus builds up. There is enough circumstantial evidence to show that some states have turned a blind eye to cyber-space centred criminal and illegal activities, perceiving certain advantages to be had from building up such a capacity. The means, motivation and objectives and approaches to I-War are examined in greater detail in two case studies.

    International Responses to I-War

    While I-War might seem to be blown out of proportion when compared to the actual disruption it causes at present, it provides sufficient indication that the threats of the future are vastly different from that envisioned by national security planners. The blurred boundaries and the anonymity provided by cyber-space make it difficult to pin responsibility for such attacks, which, going by current trends, will be perpetrated by individuals, networks, communities and organisations, with the state acting as facilitator, and nationalistic fervour providing the motivation.

    Governments have found it hard put to grapple with the complex issues of I-War, though some are increasingly cognizant of its implications for national security. Among the possible measures that can be taken are the following: i)international treaties and agreements that clearly spell out what constitutes legal and illegal activities on the Internet should be worked out; ii)states such as Russia and China should be encouraged to ensure that international norms of behaviour are followed and iii) The CERT mechanism that provides a useful interface between government, private sector and individuals should be implemented in countries where they don’t yet exist, and there should be better co-ordination and sharing of information among existing CERTs .


    Whilst analysts have been tom-tomming the impending arrival of cyberwar with vivid imagery of the collapse of critical infrastructure, the ongoing battle in the Internet space is much less noticeable but has equally important ramifications for national security. The means, the motivation and the actors have come together in a combination that presages ever increasing I-War. It is for those at the receiving end to take urgent remedial action which does not mean responding in kind, but by addressing the technical and legal lacunae in cyberspace that allows criminal elements to flourish, and illegal activities to go unpunished. This should be done in consultation with all stake holders including national governments, private sector companies and information infrastructure providers. While this would not end the problem completely, it would mitigate it somewhat, and might prevent other countries from going down the route of I-War.


    Among the points that came up in the discussion that followed the presentation were the following:

    • Ensuring Information Security is a 21st century nightmare.
    • Failure of the defences and the increasing profits from such practices has led to an increase in cyber crime.
    • Network Security id dead. The need is to address Applications security…only 9% of software vulnerabilities are being addressed
    • The need is to divert focus on the question as to what the next level of security should be. More research is required in the domain of information warfare weapons and the issue of leakages in the war room.
    • Economic security is as important as national security.
    • It is premature to link the subject of cyber threat to nationalism.
    • As a country India has a fair lead in the realm of information technology.
    • EMP or the electro magnetic pulse is an alternative to nuclear capability.
    • The information structures both at the national and global level should be studied.
    • Ten years back the American literature dominated the subject of cyber security. Gradually however other countries have also shown interest in the same.
    • There is practically no international mechanism for cooperation in this area except for the World Summit of UN Secretary General.
    • Individual is increasingly getting linked with national security.
    • A great deal of academic work needs to be done in the field of cyber security to facilitate better understanding and comprehend the threat.
    • Cyber threat would be a potent one in the twenty first century be it national security, education or health.
    • India’s security domains are attacked by China on an everyday basis.
    • Treaties and multinational forums should be fostered to reduce and ultimately eliminate the threat.
    • In this regard the IT Act of the year 2007 had many deficiencies which require attention.