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Cyber War Ahead

Updated: March 2, 2013 3:24 pm

Technology has opened up whole new domains of security contention, whether nuclear, space, or Information and Communications Technology and cyber. Each of them has its own peculiarities, and has required a revolution in the way that we think of our security, of their use and defence


There are two main reasons why we should take a holistic view of India’s security today. One is the nature of the world around us. We are living in a time of very rapid changes, of what could be a transition not just from the Cold War bi-polar world to a world where power is more evenly distributed, but away from the Westphalian state order that we have all got used to. International balances of power are shifting more rapidly than they have for centuries. Western dominance remains a fact, but is no longer as paramount as it once was. Several emerging or re-emerging nations like China, India and others are beginning to play a larger role in the world economy and in regional balances of power. We see the strains of adjustment of seeking new equilibriums all around us in the international system: in West Asian turmoil, in new edge to existing territorial and maritime disputes, in the use of new institutions like the G-20 to address economic crises which would have been handled within the G-8 in the past and so on. The list of rapidly evolving situations and crises is a long one.

For the broader purposes of our national security what is important is that these changes in the international system are both dynamic and non-linear. They are dynamic in the sense that any one actor’s moves or rise provokes actions and reactions by several other actors, not always with predictable consequences. This is what is described as the classic security dilemma: where each side believes that the other’s growing capabilities reflect hostile intent and responds by producing that reality. They are non-linear in the sense that their effect is not just the sum of the parts but actually is cumulatively much more profound.

Secondly, India is today more connected to the rest of the world than ever before in our history. Over 40 per cent of our GDP is linked to the external sector, as opposed to about 18 per cent when we began to reform the economy in 1991. In every aspect of our lives that we seek to secure, whether it is technology, energy, food, prosperity, or defence equipment, we depend upon or are influenced by what occurs outside the country.

Scene in neighbourhood

A conclusion that I would draw from recent developments in our immediate neighbourhood is that we should make our border management much more proactive, using technology and intelligence and developing influence across these borders to manage them in a more intelligent way. The turmoil to the west of India warns us that our internal insurgents and militants will find more succour and support outside India in the future. The disturbed state of the Ummah should make us even more sensitive to the dangers of communal incitement. We have had an enviable record of communal harmony in India over the last eight years. However, there were worrying signs in 2012. Communal violence levels have risen. Overall, while we have improved our capabilities and performance in several internal security tasks, external factors and influences are likely to make our life in India harder in the immediate future.

The greatest challenge to India’s security today is not one or the other present threat, whether Left Wing Extremism (LWE) or cross-border terrorism or any other. It is our ability to create the capabilities to respond to the threats of today and tomorrow, not all of which will be predictable.

Security challenges

It is counter-intuitive but sadly true that in our country of over one billion people it is hard to find the right people for national security tasks and jobs. The armed forces face a shortage of around 13,000 officers, even when they themselves undertake the most thorough and comprehensive training of personnel they select.

The shortage in our police forces is even greater. Almost half a million sanctioned police posts throughout the country are unfilled. In terms of cyber security professionals, one estimate is that the country needs to train at least 20,000 persons in related fields in next three to five years. The shortage of personnel is particularly noticeable in national security fields, where most of the jobs that we seek to fill today did not exist a few decades ago. This is partly because the present education system does not prepare people for new or emerging security tasks. For instance, when we were looking for cryptologists recently we found that many of our best minds were working abroad.

We decided to set up a programme to build our national capabilities and encourage our own scholars. But this is only one example of what is a broader skill and knowledge gap, at a time when technology drives our security in so many ways.

Nor have we built the links between practitioners and academics, between implementing agencies and research laboratories that we need to make attractive research relevant and careers in national security fields.

The government is aware of the problem. The National Defence University, which is being finalised, will help meet the felt need in one aspect of national security studies. The very nature of the cyber world is forcing both government, the private sector and academia to learn new ways of working together on cyber security, as some of you know. But the same process is needed for internal security institutions, linking theory, practice and training to create a real basis for reform in the way we police ourselves.

Tools needed to meet security challenges

For the nation as a whole it is increasingly in the mastery of science and technology that we need to find the tools to deal with our security challenges. In the recent past technology has opened up whole new domains of security contention, whether nuclear, space, or Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and cyber. Each of them has its own peculiarities, and has required a revolution in the way that we think of our security, of their use and defence. Deterrence theory was the outcome of the development of nuclear weapons. But the development of ICT has required us to discover new ways of thinking about a domain where deterrence does not seem to work, and where the technology actually empowers non-state actors of all kinds.

Securing our assets in the new domains, nuclear, space, and ICT also pose entirely new intellectual challenges. For instance, our dependence on space assets for communications, navigation and for domain awareness make their security a very high national priority. And yet no nation, no matter how powerful can be completely confident that its space assets are secure today.

The problem of securing ICT assets in their dispersed locations and in the various hands that control them, has also not been satisfactorily solved by any one country. Yet here lies our opportunity as a relative late-comer to the field to leap-frog and to devise solutions of our own to our particular problems in the new domains.

Cyber security

Cyber security is perhaps the best example of how essential the combination of men, ideas and tools is to security. Indians now spend more time on social media than on any other activity on the internet. An NDTV poll last year showed that over 65 per cent of Indians would rather have a smart mobile phone than a television. Watch out mainstream media! Increasing numbers of our urban youth get their news and opinions from the internet. This will only grow as internet penetration increases.

In 2012 we had dramatic evidence of the power of social media and the internet to produce kinetic effects in society. The internet and social media were used as weapons, originally in the so-called Arab Spring, more recently in India itself. So did those who drove over thirty thousand North-Easterners back in panic to their original homes using rumour and threats transmitted on social media, SMS and other such means. The toll from the violence of dead, injured and displaced showed how such media can be used by small organised groups to achieve heinous goals.

We are seeing a marked rise in communally inflammatory materials posted on the net, some of it maliciously manipulated and designed to inflame passions and provoke violence. These tools are being used to mobilise ethnic and religious groups, to incite communal violence, and to destabilise social order. While much of the malicious incitement came from within the country, the material used, the technologies, sites, and services involved, and some of the incitement came from outside India. And as it soon emerged, each service provider and country had its own definitions of what was obnoxious and malicious and how to deal with it.

 By ShivShankar Menon

(The author is National Security Advisor. The article is based on writer’s speech at Dr Raja Ramanna Lecture at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru and prepared by Rajesh Kamath)

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