Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who is afraid of cyber militia?

Blocking fraudsters, hackers and cyber militias

From The Statesman
ND Batra

A few months ago I received a very unusual email message from a well-regarded friend saying that he had lost his bag in Kuala Lumpur, where he had gone to attend an international conference on HIV, and asked if I could wire him some money which he would return as soon as he returned home. He asked me to respond promptly so that he could me give the hotel address where I could electronically transfer the money.

I looked at the email address and the name again ~ everything seemed genuine and my first impulse was to rescue my friend in distress but then a suspicion began to creep in. The last name was hyphenated, Ryan Douglas-Gagnon instead of Ryan Douglas Gagnon (a presumed name to protect privacy) as my friend normally writes it. Again I wondered why Ryan, an accountant by profession with an élan for poetry, would go to Kuala Lumpur when his business was limited to Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore. Although he was involved with some local charities, I never heard him talking about any HIV international conference in Malaysia. I decided to cool it for a few days to see how urgent the need was before I regretted my decision. Two days after I received an email from the real Ryan Douglas Gagnon saying that his e-mail had been compromised and asked me to communicate with him on his new email address. Hackers must have used spyware to steal the password of his e-mail to commit a fraud on me; and I was almost taken in. What a relief.

In the past I have received email solicitations from strangers, perhaps based in Nigeria, Russia or somewhere else, asking me whether I’d accept their money for investment in return for a heavy commission paid up front. Though such fraudulent investment schemes are now well-known, some gullible people do get caught in the trap.I am not the only one paranoid about growing cyber threats.

Hackers and fraudsters are a growing menace in the ever-expanding and interconnected digital world. Last June, several members of US Congress complained that sensitive data from their computers had been stripped by Chinese hackers. Representatives Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) and Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) were quoted in the Hill, a congressional newspaper, saying the FBI had discovered that their staff computers had been hacked by people working out of China. Both congressmen have been dealing with human rights abuses in China and Tibet.

Chinese hackers have also been trying to penetrate defence establishment networks including Nasa, Sandia National Laboratories and the Naval War College during the past several years. “Computer systems control all critical infrastructures, and nearly all of these systems are linked together through the Internet. This means that nearly all infrastructures in the United States are vulnerable to being attacked, hijacked or destroyed by cyber means...The potential for massive and coordinated cyber attacks against the United States is no longer a futuristic problem,” Mr Wolf said.

Now that the corporate global is rushing to China for the Beijing Olympics, fears of cyber hacking too have been increasing. Ms Siobhan Gorman reported last week in the Wall Street Journal that the US government was extremely concerned about whether it would be diplomatically wise to openly warn businesspersons and travellers visiting China during the Beijing Olympics about Chinese hackers, said to be the smartest and the most dangerous in the world. Data can be stolen at hotels, airports or anyplace from cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys and other electronic devices simply by wirelessly inserting spyware that is designed for stealthy removal of information. Although the US government issues warning about terrorism and health risks when Americans travel abroad, wrote WSJ, it does not issue warning about cyber threats.

Talking to an audience at Purdue University, Indiana, last week about various threats faced by the US in the 21st century, Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said building cyber defences would be one of his top priorities because information networks are “increasingly the backbone of our economy and our infrastructure; our national security and our personal well-being”. Mr Obama’s immediate concern seemed to be about terrorists using US computer networks “to deal us a crippling blow” rather than a “friendly” trading country like China, which has a vicious underground cyber hacker militia that cannot operate without the government’s knowledge and others attempting to steal trade and military secrets.

Acknowledging that cyber-espionage has been growing, Mr Obama said as President he would “make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century...declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a National Cyber Advisor who (would)...coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national cyber-security policy, and tighten standards to secure information ~ from the networks that power the federal government, to the networks that you use in your personal lives”. Bravo.

Today no one is immune from cyber attacks. But what is the special challenge for India?According to the legend, India helped the US and rest of the world to overcome the Y2K crisis. India’s IT industry took up the challenge of Y2K and in the process triggered a new age of prosperity, catapulting India into the knowledge age. Today if the Indian IT sector could develop a universal ‘unhackable’ cyber security system that not only prevented but also pre-empted hackers, fraudsters and state-supported cyber militias, India would usher in a new era of global trade and prosperity.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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