Opinion / Analysis

Hacking: Novel Threat

Dr. Niranjan Barik

Of late, the menace of computer ‘hacking’ has become a punishable offense when it compromises national security. Of course not all acts of hacking will be amounting to terrorism, and sometime used as a tool for pranks or profit. This could be regarded as terrorist action only if the hacking is designed to disrupt government’s activities, or to advance anti- national causes, or to intimidate its citizens. Either a threat or real use of it, is a potential act of terrorism, or rather can be regarded as cyber-crime or cyber-terrorism in a broader context. Hacking could be an asymmetrical warfare but in certain circumstances it is a weapon of the powerful against the vulnerable. It can perhaps enable every individual or every group or every State however small it may be, to have destructive and disruptive power through cyber attack if it is negatively committed or dedicated. Hacking could pose security problems for states if the intruder smuggles out strategic files that become handy for enemy elements. Last couples of years, some countries have been facing the brunt of ‘hacking’ by some renegade elements. These elements and their mentors usually adopt cheap means to deceive and defeat their rivals attacking sensitive targets, similar to guerilla tactic of hit and run. They fear to target their rival and do not fight openly. Unlike conventional warfare where deployment takes time and money and is quite visible, in the cyber warfare, attackers can attack millions of computer systems and successfully infect hundreds of thousands, in a few hours or days, and remain completely hidden. In present day scenario, the threat of hacking is basically emanates from two sources. While there is a constant effort from non-state actors (NSAs) to hack the network of vital installations in countries like India and the US, another source is basically a systematic attack by some State sponsored hackers. The objective of these state sponsored hackers is to collect military intelligence and affect economic activity of a particular country. There is a pattern that, in the last one decade, hacking is mostly targeted towards democratic countries. According to the Breach Security Labs 2009 hacking incidents database (WHID) Web 2.0 sites are becoming a premier target for hackers. ‘Defacements’ remains the most common outcome of web attacks (28 percent), while the ‘leakage of sensitive information’ comes second with 26 percent followed by the ‘disinformation’ with 19 percent. Defacement is a kind of ideological hacking mostly used of a political nature targeting government departments. Others have a cultural aspect, mainly Islamic hackers defacing Western web sites. The nature of attack and target indicates that there are meticulous plans by a group of countries having ideological differences with democratic societies. In 1998-99, a series of alleged coordinated attacks carried out on American computer systems, dubbed as ‘Moonlight Maze’ where the attacks were traced to Russia. However, Russia denied any involvement. During NATO air strikes of Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, some NATO Web sites were disabled by Serbian-sponsored computer hackers. Pakistani hackers defaced an Indian Army site and left messages in support of Kashmiri separatists during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Of late, Britain’s military and foreign policy secrets sources said the emergence of Beijing as one of the most hostile state hackers has been highlighted in the United States, with allegations that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army tried to extract secrets from a computer in the Pentagon office. The most infamous had been the ‘Titan Rain’ incident, a well-organized Chinese military hacking effort against the U.S. military between 2003-05 and believed to have stolen many sensitive information including aviation specifications and flight-planning software. Beijing denied allegation and said that there had been “wild allegations” against China, reflecting a “Cold War mentality”. The blame game does not end with USA, China or Russia. According to a media reports (e.g. Reuters, 08 July, 2009), more than two dozen Internet sites in South Korea and the United States, including the portal of the White House, were attacked in recent days by hackers that South Korea's spy agency said may be linked to North Korea. South Korean media, including Yonhap news agency, quoted parliament members as saying after an intelligence briefing that the spy agency believed "North Korea or pro-North elements" were behind the attacks. Interestingly, the internet services in North Korea are in very poor condition, costly and state controlled. Any kind of links to hacking generates suspense over North Korea about state sponsored activity. It is believed that hackers possibly based in China and other countries attack computers of ideological rival countries. Arguably, the cyber terrorism has emerged as a kind of instrument for the future ideological warfare between countries. There is need of global cooperation to tackle the menace. While some states are engaged in hacking business, there is a need of strong global cyber-terrorism law to get control over hacking. International community should not get away from their responsibility by terming it as a problem of the affected countries. Considering the growing dependence of the human civilization on computer technology, hacking could be a bargaining tool for the hackers to achieve their evil objectives.

Author Note
Dr. Niranjan Barik, Professor, Politics & International Relations, Khallikote Autonomous College, Orissa (INDIA).