Declare a cyber security emergency–economic times

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Around 50 organisations, including important departments of the US government, such as Treasury, State and Homeland Security, have been hacked, and for nearly nine months, without these departments or their cyber guardians being aware of the transgress. What does this mean for India and its defences against foreign attackers? Cybersecurity must go right up to the top of national security, and shoring it up taken up on an emergency basis.

The sophisticated attack that has allowed large-scale data transfer from American government agencies, including the one that manages its nuclear arsenal, possibly to a foreign government, was managed through third-party software. Orion is a network management tool, developed and supplied by the software company SolarWinds, and the hackers embedded their piece of malware in an upgrade to Orion, which its users accepted and ran on their systems, with nary a suspicion of foul play. What this means is that software from well-trusted sources can be the medium for implanting Trojans in the target system. Our cybersecurity managers can take no piece of software from any company for granted. Everything is suspect, until tested and verified to be kosher. As India increasingly goes digital, our financial systems, the tax database, the dematerialised accounts in which shares are held, just about everything becomes vulnerable to cyberattacks. The enemy need not confront us with their troops or missiles or submarines: just some hanky-panky that wipes out records of share ownership or destroys the Goods and Services Tax Network and its database would.

Yes, India does have some cybersecurity systems in place. What the penetration of sensitive US government agencies by hackers shows is that such systems might prove to be offering more illusory protection than real security. India must shore up its defences by buying the best protection on offer, in the short term, and by developing indigenous capacity on a war footing. Covid vaccine development shows the way forward for emergency action.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Economic Times.


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