Beware of the online hacker

May 24, 2013, 13:28 IST | Hassan M Kamal

From Union Minister Kapil Sibal's account being hacked to protest against his web censorship views, to breaking into Indian Prime Minister's Office and other important government spaces, online attacks are witnessing a rise in India. Hassan M Kamal gives a 360-degree perspective on the big, wide web of hacking

Last week, the government of India approved a new cyber security policy that aims to provide secure computing environment in the country and build capacities to strengthen the current scenario, with a focus on manpower training. The move came at a time when India has been seeing a torrent of international attacks on its cyber networks. A recent report said that India ranks 8th on the list of the top 10 hacking targets, accounting for a 2.3% of the world’s attack traffic during the 4th quarter of 2012. 

Although, it was a drop from 2.5% witnessed in the third quarter in the same year, some of the most important offices of the Government of India (GOI) have been compromised including the Prime Ministers Office; Ministry of External Affairs and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). To top this, New Delhi believes some of these attacks originated from computers in China.

How big is the threat?
According to a report, published earlier this year by Verizon, 52 % of all data breaches globally in 2012 were hacking incidents, with a large share of it accounting for espionage and sabotage. “Cyber security is a major concern for governments across the world including India with a majority of threats originating from China,” says Ashish Thapar, of Verizon Enterprise Solutions India, a web security certificate provider. The report, published in 2013, recorded more than 47,000 cyber security incidents in 2012, the largest ever in a year, with 621 confirmed data disclosures and at least 44 million compromised records.

International cyber attacks
Data breaches are alarming as the source is more than often a device in foreign soil; with access to secured systems that control the functioning of industries and essential services like electricity grids, nuclear power plants, manufacturing plants etc., hackers could cause a havoc in a country, says Thapar.

While some tech experts claim a situation of cyber warfare wouldn't arrive, a report submitted to the UN Secretary General in 2010, found increasing evidence that states were developing Information and Communication Devices (ICTs) as instruments of warfare and intelligence for political purposes. Right now China is reported to be leading the war with its dedicated army of one lakh cyber warriors.

While globally, cyber attacks are categorised into espionage, sabotage and so on, depending on the nature of the attack, no such classification exists in India. However, hacking incidents have grown in number from a group of hackers called MilW0rm that attacked computers in Mumbai’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in 1998. According to the GOI, between 2008 and October 2011, CERT-In (the top Indian agency monitoring cyber attacks in the country) reported and traced hacker groups defacing around 653 government websites. The government said some of the attacks were traced back to China.

Personal device a major target
While most attacks in India are on government websites and computers, globally, 70 per cent of the cyber attacks were made on personal devices, and this, says Vijay Mukhi, tech expert, is worth noting in an Indian context. “The number of smartphones have grown in the country, and today, people are uploading almost all kinds of information on the web without even understanding it.

Besides most of our web profiles are interconnected, as we use the same email ID to log into Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and to your phone. If a hacker gets access to one of the passwords, he could easily trace all other information,” he says.

According to Kaspersky Security Bulletin 2012, 99% of newly discovered mobile malicious programs target the Android platform (the most popular smartphone platform in India) identifying an average of 6,300 new mobile malware samples every month, raising new concerns.

Ethical hacking
“The need of the hour is to create awareness about cyber security and issues related to it,” says ethical hacker, Ankit Fadia. “Ethical hacking can help a great deal in achieving that,” he adds. In fact, the government and private companies have already started using the services of professionals (ethical hackers) to conduct security audits, where they look for flaws by hacking into a company’s server after receiving authorisation and fix them to make the systems secure.

Another form of hacking that has risen to popularity over the last few years is Hacktivism, an ideology- driven online activism where hackers break into websites and servers of governments and private firms to protest against their actions. “Most often, the aim is to generate media coverage by defacing the websites of public figures, websites and or slow down servers using methods like Distributed Denial of Service (DDOs),” reveals Fadia.  A very recent hacktivism incident was when the Indian arm of the infamous hacktivist group, Anonymous, hacked into Union Minister Kapil Sibal’s website as a mark of protest against the Minister’s view on web censorship. But, unlike criminal hackers, who work only for financial gains, hacktivism has a lot of public support, and their members are connected to each other through ideas.

Cyber incidents in the news: 2012-2013
Mid-April 2012: A series of cyber-attacks carried by malware Wiper destroy computer systems at several oil platforms in the Middle East.
April 2012: More than 700,000 Macs estimated to be infected with Flashback Trojan virus. The largest mac infection to date.
June 5, 2012: 6.4 million password hashes of Linked In hacked. Soon Dropbox, and Gamigo falls into the same trap leaking more than 8 million passwords to the public. In 2011, Sony Playstation Platform was hacked compromising users passwords and personal details.
August 2012: Shamoon attacks Saudi Oil conglomerate Aramco. More than 30, 000 computers completely destroyed. 27 September 2012: Adobe certificates stolen.

Methods of cyber attacks>>
Phishing, Malware and spyware: Information stealing software programmes
Distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS): Also called the nuclear bomb of cyberwarfare, it results in exhaustion of computing or communications resources by engaging many intermediate computers to simultaneously attack one victim.
Sabotage: Affecting the functioning of computers and satellites that co-ordinate other activities. In 2010, the New York Times reported that a malicious software program called Stuxnet had infiltrated factory computers and had spread to plants around the world. According to Symantec report in 2010, India accounted for  8 % of Stuxnet infestations.
Espionage: Obtaining sensitive, proprietary or classified information.

Learning new tricks
Indian Honey Net Project: It’s a project, which aims to learn new tricks and methods used by hackers by attracting them to vulnerable server networks, and thus monitoring their actions.

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