In the age of cyber attacks, next war be fought over the internet?

Oct 13, 2018, 08:56 IST | Debjani Paul

As Russian bots meddle in the US elections yet again, and India witnesses repeated cyber attacks from other nations, it may be time to ask: will the next war be fought on the Internet?

In the age of cyber attacks, next war be fought over the internet?
Illustration/ Ravi Jadhav

It's scary to think that a bunch of hackers sitting hundreds of miles away in a foreign country could kill the lights across India, or even bring aircrafts hurtling down on our cities, all with the flick of a switch. And yet, we've been forced to admit that cyber warfare is a reality ever since Russia's infamous interference in the US presidential race in 2016 through disinformation and hacking, which is allegedly being repeated yet again in the 2018 mid-terms.

Closer home, after recent serious breaches, India is number four among target nations for Web Application Attacks, according to the US-based Akamai Technologies. But how big is the threat, really, and are we prepared to fight it?

Some of the worst attacks
India, submarine plans: India's $3.5-billion plans for the next-generation Scorpene submarines were leaked from French shipbuilder DCNS in 2016.
National security: Pakistani hackers struck 10 websites of National Aeronautics and military institutions in 2017.
Military emails: In the worst attack on this nation, Chinese hackers struck over 10,000 email accounts belonging to top government and military officials in 2012.

Kyle Mills

Now in popular culture
Because full-scale conventional wars are hard to imagine in our world, bestselling author Kyle Mills has Russian cyberwarfare at the centre of his new thriller.

"Russia's economy is the size of Texas's, but it has an incredible ability to inflict damage without exposing itself to a significant retaliation. For years, people have recognised the increasing threat of attacks on power grids, computer networks, and communications. But I don't think anyone was prepared for the effectiveness of Internet propaganda. Russia can't defeat the US in a military or economic war. But they might be able to convince America to defeat itself," Mills told mid-day over email.

Is India safe?
For India, the risk is most prominent and immediate from China and Pakistan, suggest experts. "The chances of wars being fought purely in the cyberspace are slim, but it will be used as a force multiplier. Already, these attacks are carried out on a daily basis. That said, India's defence has been strong enough to stop most of these attacks," says Munish Sharma, consultant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

Dr Cherian Samuel, the research fellow at IDSA who has written several papers on cybersecurity, says, "Cyber attacks are an easy way to make other countries insecure because technology has become integral to everything."

He added, "The rules of engagement are blurred. First of all, attribution of an attack is difficult, because non-state actors have access to the same tech as the state, which has never happened before."

The threat is omnipresent and three-dimensional, agrees Sharma, but assures that the government has taken steps like appointing a national cyber security coordinator, Gulshan Rai, in 2015. A defence cyber agency is in the pipeline as well.

Dr Samuel added, "While some have called for a Minister of Cybersecurity, that might be overreaching. In fact, in Australia, they have scrapped that position after having a minister for two years."

Worst-case scenarios

Electricity

Electricity
Blackout of power grids has already happened in Ukraine

Communications

Communications
Hackers could strike telephone and Internet networks and take them offline

Financial system

Financial system
Collapse of banking system and stock exchange

Hospitals

Hospitals
Failure of life-saving equipment, medical records

Flights

Flights
Aircraft systems can be hacked for hijacking or crash

Transportation

Transportation
Hacking traffic or railway signals could cause collisions

Nuclear facilities

Nuclear facilities
Catastrophic or partial failure like in Iran in 2010

Weapons

Weapons
Nearly all of US' new weapons systems are vulnerable to cyber attacks

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