India must shield itself with the most efficient tech and equipment, but warding off a cyber threat is more than a question of technology

Two recent incidents show that India has miles to go when it comes to being prepared for cyber emergencies: the systems at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) were hijacked by ransomware and Terminal 2 of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport saw a swift throwback to the era of manual airport operations, when its servers went out of commission for two hours and more. One of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies and a vaunted information technology superpower cannot afford to be caught off-guard like this.

Mumbai’s is one of the world’s busiest airports — it handled more than 130,000 passengers on a single day recently. It had come out with flying colours in a drill that simulated a bomb threat in September. But it was defenceless against the disruption caused when a random construction worker in another part of the city dug up the ground, and cut through the optical fibre cable that connects the computers at the airports to the cloud.

Some questions that arise are: since the right of way for laying underground cables is a highly valued commodity, how come the ground above the cables is not protected from random digging? How come there are no other cables that serve as redundancy? Shouldn’t there be redundancy in the form of microwave links and via satellite? How can the cloud connectivity of vital installations in India be left hostage to those who wield a backhoe with the same sense of responsibility with which a bull might inspect wares in a China shop?

The cyberattack on AIIMS is a wake-up call. It is a premier public sector institution. If all the preparedness advocated by CERT-In (India’s Computer Emergency Response Team) could not protect AIIMS against a ransomware attack, in the month after the one that was observed as national cyber security awareness month, we must worry about the security of all of government.

It is vital to understand that the next war might be fought not on the border but in cyber space. Increasingly, big powers count cyber and space capabilities as strategic capabilities for both offence and defence. The People’s Liberation Army, PLA, has a division bearing the anodyne name, Strategic Support Force. That houses, among other things, China’s tools and manpower for cyber offence and defence.

From the non-deliverable rupee futures on markets abroad to the vast amounts of corporate wealth stored in dematerialized accounts, from the core banking solutions of commercial banks to the armed forces’ command structure, from the SCADA-controlled sluice gates of dams to the load dispatch centres of the power grid, every node of the working framework of the modern nation is a potential enemy target.

India must shield itself with the finest, most efficient technologies and equipment to insulate itself from cyberattack. It is equally important for the country to arm itself with the capacity to deliver critical cyber blows of its own. The logic of mutually assured destruction remains valid in the realm not just of nuclear weapons.

But warding off a cyber threat is more than a question of technology. Cyber security lies in creating a culture of modern, aware, responsible interdependence. City planning is as much warding off chaos on the roads as laying ducts for cooking gas, optical fibre cable, and power in pre-planned, well-articulated, well-demarcated pipeline networks immune to unplanned digging.

Password security is as much about complex sequences and special characters as human integrity and commitment to keeping others safe. And a culture of cyber security awareness starts with an education system equipped with these newer needs of curriculum, skills and ethics training.

The sense of social cohesion and interdependence, without which the well-laid plans of cyber men go awry, comes from social and political inclusion, undergirded by good governance. Cyber security is something that gives ‘we are in it all together’ real, tangible meaning.