Operation Cyber Freedom: Securing over a billion dreams from adversarial entities (Comment)
We are part of a thriving, young, and vibrant nation. We also belong to a civilization that is timeless in age backed by a culture that has gifted the world spiritual enlightenment, technological progress and unbound and selfless wisdom. At no point in time were we anything but givers to the global community as a whole. Today, as the winds of technology blow, Indian minds are not just powering this revolution but leading it as well.
A nation of our stature also attracts the attention of the wrong kind. In the last few years, we have seen reports of how actors backed by nation-states and non-state actors consistently attacking our critical and non-critical infrastructure for various reasons. These attacks are not limited to the defense sector alone. Healthcare, transport, IT, telecom have each been attacked in the recent past. Such attacks point to the activation of bot farms consisting of millions of zombie devices that have been hacked to serve as a source of processing capacity for launching cyberattacks on India.
Some of these attacks are being carried out with the discipline of a regular army. It carries all the signatures thereof — including high levels of research and reconnaissance, multiple attacks to gain entry, precision targeting, disciplined and patient approach towards creating a beachhead, and, last but not least, persistent attempts to hack and acquire information. Such attacks need to be countered at various levels, and we need to evolve and deploy a cybersecurity doctrine that affords us protection and secures our infrastructure, minds, and resources.
There is a rapid deterioration of international stability across our immediate neighborhood, the Middle East, Eastern, and Central Europe alone with continuing geopolitical turmoil that is shaping foreign and domestic policy decisions around energy and defence. The challenge for all of us is the character of the competition being fueled by nefarious means is being conducted by authoritarian opponents who are part of nations that have not tasted democracy in its entirety ever. They also have armed forces who have been issued carte blanche by their political masters to indulge in international chicanery that ends at the doorsteps of democracies like ours and harms our growth aspirations.
Our adversaries are not just attacking the foundational pillars of our existence as a nation but also attacking our way of life and our freedoms in a manner that is quite difficult to defeat without undermining those very freedoms we seek to protect. Our adversaries are making a concerted attempt to undermine cohesion, erode economic, political, and social resilience, and challenge our strategic position in our part of the world. Such efforts have to be met with a level of resistance that doesn”t merely defeat these machinations but also serves to deter future attempts.
The increasing digitization of our growth is opening new ways to execute a type of “political warfare” that relies on the use and abuse of information, online espionage, state-backed cyberattacks, and intellectual property theft, among other things. The chain doesn”t stop here. It is often backed by the promotion of misinformation and fake news in cyberspace.
We need to address this challenge through a strategic response that integrates all levers of power and operations. We need to bring in a renewed coherence and consistency to our defence strategy for the next decade, which will be a critical one as we aim at becoming a $5 trillion economy. We need to be able to strike and protect a dimension that emerges from the integration of five domains that are space, cyber and information, air, maritime, and land. This integration will change the way we fight and the way we develop the capability to protect and defend.
We need to engage and sustain our advantage in the cyberspace through:
Identifying new sources of threats by deciphering their motivation
Early identification and mitigation of risks in the digital space
Preventing our citizens from being used as conduits to attack us
Preventing espionage through social engineering
Scuttling attempts to spread misinformation through digital means and agencies
Attempts to steal our IP
Preventing hackers from monetizing stolen data
Gathering the right data that can feed into actionable intelligence
Preventing online terror funding using cryptocurrencies
Our armed forces, in the future, will have to develop and deploy a strategy that gives them the ability to operate at a micro and nano levels with a small force while moving faster relying on a very high degree of mobility, electronic warfare and passive deception measures to maintain the information advantage we possess now. More and more automated, supervised, and autonomous platforms will be integrated in a manner to enable the faster introduction of new tech as also the ability to defend or strike hard as required while maintaining a deterrence posture that conveys strength and resilience. Disabling of adversarial infrastructure for the short or long term will be a part of this measure.
Such a high level of modernization will need us to embrace information-centric technologies and approaches. We also need to recognise the need for the application of a blend of technologies such as computing power, connectivity, machine learning, IoT and artificial intelligence [AI],
automation, autonomy, and quantum computing to attain the disruptive power we need.
The path ahead
We need to initiate work on multiple projects in parallel to support the goals I have outlined previously without losing focus. These projects should focus on areas where ethical technologies and a high level of automation can bring a plethora of advantages while we redefine data as a strategic and uncompromisable asset. The industry in India needs to back us on this front.
We must embrace open, outwardly facing innovation across all segments and outsource to strategic partners. No one can do everything anymore, as this leads to erosion of core competencies and dilution of strengths. A high level of collaboration with the academic and entrepreneurial ecosystem is the need of the hour. We must utilise technology scouts to amplify our R&D capabilities and support universities, research centres, startups, and established companies looking to develop strategic alliances with the right partners.
Ten mantras for growing and sustaining our digital dreams:
Vigilant diligence by all players in the ecosystem keeping national interests in mind
Supporting indigenous technology agencies and firms, talent and other components to maintain our organic growth
Invest in developing capabilities and capacity in India”s academic institutions
Encourage research and publication and sharing of knowledge and best practices
Just like we have become a power to reckon with in space and IT, we need to become a cybersecurity superpower as well
Evolve a mission approach and relentlessly pursue excellence by increasing the standards for all aspects
Gamify and conduct drills and audits at regular frequencies to ensure readiness in case of a major attack
Establish a series of malware labs across the country to enable the evolution of countermeasures
Develop and use minimum penalty thresholds on cybercriminals and state-backed actors to deter them
Blend technologies to get the best of all worlds
(Vinit Goenka is Secretary, Centre for Knowledge Sovereignty and author of Data Sovereignty: The Pursuit of Supremacy. The views expressed are personal)