China is all preparing for cyber war. India is still asleep!

The People’s Republic of China may have initially missed out on industrial revolution that made the western nations what they are today and constrained China to an emerging economy in spite of its mercurial economic growth for the last three-and-a-half decades. But learning from the past, it is all set to become a front-runner in the virtual revolution, and is very ready to leverage maximum possible benefits out of it. In fact, it has gone a step further to set off cyber warfare with other countries in the congested and tightly competitive virtual world. And this time, it won’t settle for being a laggard, for it is heading fast towards its most cherished goal of becoming a global superpower!

Undoubtedly, the modern warfare is no more about the number of casualties or destruction of physical property. The new doctrines of war is all about attacking a nation economically and paralyzing it for years to come. An economically broken nation would not only destroy its human capital in the long run but would be politically fragile too. In order to showcase their supremacies, today, nations are not only stealing information that have high strategic value but also destroying trillions of data bytes in host servers, thus leaving victim nations at perils.

China has unleashed muscle-flexing exercises through the cyber world and the focus is straight at its favourite enemy, the United States of America. In the real world though, despite being a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a full-fledged nuclear power, China knows it well that it is still not at par with the western armament technology, especially to that of US, UK, France and Russia. The desperation to bridge the gap forms the cornerstone to China’s cyber warfare rationale. Time and again, it has attacked various military and intelligence websites – what we call espionage – to gain access to data, technologies, blueprints, strategies and geo-strategic coordinates. To a large extent it is successful too, as there are increasing concerns in US and UK establishments regarding the price they might have to pay as a result of this on-going cyber war. However, the cyber battle is not just confined to military espionage. It includes intelligence, economic and social espionage too. Back in 2010, computers at diplomatic posts of around 103 countries were intruded by China’s cyber-spies. Phishing attempts were also made on the American power grid, and its financial records and air traffic control systems.

In this context, the red dragon’s attention has been drawn to India as well. The reason is obvious. India is touted as the next fast-growing power in Asia and is seen as a prospective silicon hub – apart from China - in the region. It’s not that China can learn a great deal from India’s defense technology and military preparedness, but it can certainly steal some knowledge from India (both economic and military plans) and accordingly, frame strategies and counter-strategies at various levels.

A political tussle is on for quite some time in the South China Sea, where India and China are offering a quick sight of their respective naval might over issues related to oil exploration in Vietnam’s coast. Consider this: on June 30, 2010, the computer system at India’s Eastern Naval Command headquartered at Visakhapatnam was hacked by unknown agents, supposedly to learn more about the plan of action of the Indian Navy that is directly responsible for operations in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Cyber forensic experts tracked the hacking route, and Beijing’s complicity was established. Translation – China hacked into the Indian Navy’s server to gain access to classified information. And this is not the first time such an attack from China has come to public light. Portals ranging from MoF websites to that of PMO have been hacked by Chinese virtual soldiers in the past. Going by such several incidences, China’s hacking expertise can beat the best in the world, while India’s will be beaten even by the worst! And being in the enemy radar of China there is every chance that the cyber-attacks will increase in future, with India being the sitting duck in the warfare.

It is indeed strange that despite a huge, talented pool of computer experts, India is staging such a poor show on this front. It is actually the weakness of our institutions – defense, defense production and defense R&D – in terms of their failure to optimally recruit and utilise intellectual capital in defending State secrets. Why can’t the incumbent government keep an army of hackers to defend the very nation and its State secrets? At least that is not being done on a priority basis, and earnestly so.

On the contrary, cyber hacking is a State-sponsored initiative in China. The government supposedly pumps-in a mammoth $55 million annually for this exercise. According to a Toronto University study, the Chinese Navy’s covert wing is directly responsible for the many acts of cyber espionage. Even terror outfits emanating from Pakistan and elsewhere, would have massive interests in gaining access to sensitive information that is delivered by Chinese hackers (State-sponsored or otherwise), that could come handy while plotting terror attacks on India. As dangerous as this suggestion sounds, the need of the hour is for India to pull up its socks and get stronger on the cyber defense front.

A specialised cell for cyber security is of utmost importance and the PM and Co. should realise the gravity of the situation. With India getting more automated and most of its communication processes now becoming digitalised, the repercussions of a full-fledged cyber war would send ripples across the entire nation and the system that runs the nation. If a Stuxnet-type worm or virus (that impaired Iran’s nuclear program in November 2007) were to attack servers across India’s stock markets, or those of the Indian Armed Forces or Utility centres, the nation would come to a standstill. [Of course, the confusion, fear, distrust, anger, helplessness and desperation amongst the people would be complimentary!] In fact, as per a recent study of the spread of Stuxnet worm by Symantec Corp., India is the 3rd-most affected nation by the worm with 8.31% of computers affected by it! [For Iran, the figure stands at 58.85%, while for Indonesia it is 18.22%; USA and Pakistan only have 1.56% and 1.28% of their computers affected by Stuxnet respectively.] Given that it affects systems that run on Windows 2000, Windows 7, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, Windows Vista, Windows XP – given the high penetration of Windows OS in India, the country is in clear and present danger of a cyber attack. Stuxnet is just an example. There are many more!

In this information era, when safeguarding information is as important as safeguarding borders, what India needs is a comprehensive defense policy that integrates virtual and real warfare. Forming numerous discreet bodies would be futile. Instead, formation of a centralised defense unit that has divisions capable of handling cyber and border security simultaneously is imperative. As of now, hacking into websites in India isn’t a tough ask. Actually it’s very easy if you ask a Chinese to do you a favour!