By Aarti Tikoo Singh
New Delhi, Dec 4 (IANS) Last month, one of India’s popular online grocery store, BigBasket, found that its data of over 20 million users had been hacked and were on sale on the dark web for over $40,000.
In October this year, Dr Lal PathLabs, one of India’s biggest clinical lab testing chains, was found to have left the data of millions of its customers exposed on an unprotected storage bucket hosted on Amazon Web Services. Whether the data hackers maliciously accessed, stole and sold the data, is not known.
This year, till August, India faced nearly 7 lakh cyber attacks, as per the data compiled by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In). Apart from the Dr Lal PathLabs data exposure and the BigBasket data hacking, data thieves attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal website and released personal information of his donors on the dark web.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, in July, hackers attacked Religare Health Insurance and put on sale the personal information of over five million people, including Religare employees. In another cyber attack, huge amounts of sensitive data of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) were leaked in the same month.
These are just a few recent examples of big data breaches in India. As per several cyber security monitoring agencies, India is among the top five countries in the world with the greatest number of cyber-attacks.
In 2019, when the terror-ridden Jammu and Kashmir state was reorganised into two Union Territories and consequently Articles 370 and 35A were nullified, India was attacked around four lakh times in the cyber space. The number is staggering because it was regardless of the internet blockade in J&K from August 2019 almost till the end of the year.
The government had suspended the internet in view of credible intelligence that Pakistan, which has been perpetrating cross-border terrorism against India for the last 30 years, was going to provoke religious fundamentalists and intensify violence in Kashmir.
The claim was later substantiated by Global Research and Analysis Team (GReAT) APAC, Kaspersky, which recorded an increase in cyber attacks on India after the nullification of Article 370 by the Union government. In the Parliament, the government announced that the attacks were seen to be originating from several countries, including China and Pakistan.
On social media, bot-driven social media campaigns were run by Pakistani intelligence targeting specific audience, with spreaders based in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The propaganda was aimed at fueling anti-India sentiment, particularly in the Gulf countries, which are otherwise close allies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Though national and international human rights activists and the media mounted a lot of pressure on India by constant criticism over the internet blockade in Kashmir, the government did not budge.
Top official sources told IANS that one of the major factors to impose an internet blockade was the persistent surge in cyber attacks against India in the preceding years. From around 50,000 attacks in 2015, CERT-In recorded around 2 lakh attacks in 2018 and a year later, the numbers doubled. Over 24 websites of Central ministries, departments and state governments were hacked as well.
“We had no option but to block the internet because we are yet to develop proper mechanisms and tools to counter cyber attacks and propaganda which can result in massive law and order issues. Our internet and online data is pretty vulnerable. And the lack of laws and regulation makes the state paralysed in protecting its citizens. The only way we could have saved lives in Kashmir was by blocking the internet,” a senior data analyst in the Central government said.
In a significant article, ‘The Lawless Realm’ published in Foreign Affairs recently, cyber security expert at Stanford University, Marietje Schaake, revealed how data is a new weapon of war, which many companies in the West are selling for billions of dollars to military and theocratic dictatorships in the Middle East and Africa to stay in power and further their geopolitical interests. Companies like Sandvine, Clearview AI, DarkMatter have been accused of such wrongdoings. China has also entered this illicit market now.
Elaborating how “non-state actors, such as militias or criminal gangs, can wreak disproportionate havoc through cyber attacks, hurting much more powerful states, companies and international organisations”, Schaake argued in her essay that democratic states have ceded too much ground to corporations.
“Government agencies responsible for national security are now often in the awkward position of relying on commercial data to fulfil their own mandates,” she wrote.
Schaake painstakingly, with examples, showed how “attackers frequently act with impunity, using clever tactics and benefiting from a legal vacuum: there are few mechanisms that guarantee international cooperation and coordination in discovering and bringing to justice cyber attackers”.
As per Niti Ayog data, in 2020, India has around 730 million internet users, 175 million online shoppers, 75 per cent new users from rural areas, and 75 per cent new users consuming data in vernacular languages. That makes India’s challenge to secure its data humongous.
By Aarti Tikoo Singh