You are here

New Challenges of Cyberwar: Stocktaking from Mumbai Experience

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • December 31, 2008

    The November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks have highlighted the new challenges posed by cyberwar. A faked telephone call from the India Foreign Minister to the Pakistani President caused a diplomatic flutter. It appears that the new civilian leadership in Pakistan was not aware of diplomatic protocol involved in such telephonic contacts and was fooled into believing that this was indeed a genuine communication. Such manipulation can easily be extended to ‘morphing’, wherein a computer-generated replica of an individual (like a minister) delivering a (threatening) message can be transmitted, causing confusion, hysteria and panic.

    Historian Indivar Kametkar, in his essay “The Shiver of 1942”, has shown how rumours of an imagined Japanese invasion of Bengal, Orissa and Madras during World War II led to panic and flight from the coastal region. Anecdotal evidence exists about a false alarm of Pakistani paratroopers deep inside Indian territory in 1965. There are also anecdotes that during the 1971 war, a number of road accidents took place in Bombay when civilians panicked by mistaking self destruct rounds of air defence artillery guns as enemy aircraft.

    The state has an important role to play in managing and regulating information and perceptions. Like state regulation of economic affairs, information and perception management has to be done in an orderly manner by the state with proper command and control centre(s). The term media management has to be understood in this positive spirit. It does not mean curtailment of freedom of speech. Management of information by the state is to safeguard against morphing and other such cyber war tactics. This cannot be left to the media alone even if it has come up with a new set of norms, procedures and rules in covering Mumbai-type incidences, given that it takes time to establish whether a particular piece of information is false or faked and in any event media houses are unlikely to have the wherewithal to identify false or fake information. Only the state can do this effectively.

    Thoughts, perceptions, attitudes and beliefs can get influenced by repeating news in a dramatic fashion, which it has to be admitted, is an unintended consequence of 24 by 7 news coverage. Inadvertent sensationalism is probably the correct term to be used in this regard. Left to its own devices, the media can unduly influence public opinion with negative consequences. Part of the reason for this could lie in the fact that state run visual media have lesser viewer-ship especially among the urban population and among the elite. While declaring Mumbai-type attacks as a war on India may be a good sound byte, such incidences pale into relative insignificance in terms of destruction and violence and consequences in comparison with a shooting war.

    The state is the best agency and one with the wherewithal to cope with the threat of morphing, false rumours and reports. In a recent lecture at the IDSA on peaceful uses of atomic energy, Anil Kakodkar, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, referred to the hype about nuclear accidents and argued for public education to overcome fears caused thereby. Other incidents that could cause such hype include the detonation of radiological or dirty bombs by terrorists, the spread of bird flu, etc. Accurate reporting is vital to avoid panic. State-run television media has a vital role to play in this regard and it has to be more innovative in terms of presenting accurate information in a creative manner to attract viewership. In its present form it simply cannot compete with private television networks.

    Cyber terrorists will continue to spring surprises. The best way to tackle them is through accurate and truthful reporting of news. Setting up control centres, as has been suggested in a previous IDSA commentary needs to be progressed further. Public education, a self-regulated media which does not thrive on sensationalism, and trust in the state machinery, are key ingredients. Some key points that need to be borne in mind are:

    • The state machinery must satisfy the media’s hunger for information by conducting regular briefings. Procedures and practices need to be evolved and rehearsed to make officials media-savvy.
    • The training syllabus for media needs to be revised and capsules should be conducted more frequently, with inclusion of current and future concerns. It may be a good idea to critically analyse previous events from the perspective of media management.
    • Cyber laws should cater for challenges posed by morphing or impersonation.
    • Civil-military liaison events must revisit such contingencies and rehearse unexpected situations.
    • State-run media should make greater efforts to make itself more popular. While radio coverage is well under control in rural and remote areas, proliferating music channels leave reporting to untrained announcers who could commit blunders while reporting on a crisis situation. State-run television also needs to make itself at part with private television channels by reinventing itself to suit the requirements and tastes of a fast-changing society.