Surgical strike in cyberspace
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


While the surgical strikes by Indian Special Forces in PoK on September 28 was heating up the digital media both in India in Pakistan, opposition parties baying for proof and Nawaz Sharif in denial till Ghulam Akbar, SP of Mirpur spilled the beans, surgical strikes by Indian hackers were also hitting Pakistan in cyberspace. As per media reports, Indian hackers singed Pakistan government networks and locked their computers in wake of Pakistani hackers defacing Indian sites. Interestingly, Pakistani hackers offered to pay the Indian hackers with Bitcoins to let their systems be unlocked. Earlier, a group of Pakistani hackers (the Pakistan Haxors Crew) had claimed they had defaced 7,051 Indian websites after India launched surgical strike in PoK. The list of Indian websites targeted included the official website of the National Green Tribunal and Bihar State Electronics Development Corporation. In response, Indian hackers defaced server of and hacked Pakistan army base camp locations gaining access to their internal networks and pivoted into their embedded devices like IP cameras, printers and routers, and stole confidential details about Pakistani trade, secret projects and shared this data with our MoD. One of the anonymous Indian hackers is believed to be a member of the ‘Telangana Cyber Warrior’.

Indian hackers believe that the cyber attacks from Pakistan are state sponsored, which not a surprise since Pakistan is a protégé of China and Chinese cyberwarfare is spearheaded by the PLA. Many Pakistani accounts became active post India’s surgical strike, which are used for expanding terror network. India has zeroed in on several suspected accounts, including the account of one Salman Chaudhary, who has been uploading objectionable content like videos on Pakistan attacking India with nuclear weapons. Indian experts also believe that cyber attacks from Pakistan are state-sponsored but official Indian agencies have not yet retaliated. One of the Indian hacker revealed it took over three months to infect the Pakistani computers, and 100 Pakistani computers now under his control belong to the education department and government tender website among others. One of the hackers admitted of receiving 120 bitcoins to release the Pakistani computers, which he is reportedly using for charity; money being distributed among the trusts involved in education of poor kids. Cyber warfare is a vital part of hybrid warfare and we have been fighting hybrid wars past several years.

By all indications, Pakistan is intent on heightening her proxy war. Hence, cyber war too would axiomatically go up. The above actions by Indian hackers proves that our young hackers are technically sound and can easily spy or steal data from any country. But as one young hacker lamented to the media, No one ever tried to bring young talents under one umbrella for information gathering”. Undoubtedly, there is plenty of talent (IT engineers, hackers and others) in the country that merely needs harnessing and direction. This potential must be harnessed by the government and institutionalized as ‘cyber clubs’ tasked with a roadmap and objectives both during hybrid war, as also when conventional war breaks out with our adversaries. In this context, the considerable prowess of Israel in terms of cyber technology and security should be taken note of and Indo-Israel relations optimized for capacity building in cyber warfare. In his recent speech at the UN General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that though Israel accounted for one-tenth of one percent of the world`s population, last year it attracted some 20 percent of the global private investment in cyber-security. He stated, "In cyber, Israel is punching a whopping 200 times above its weight.

So, Israel is also a global cyber power," adding, "If hackers are targeting your banks, your planes, your power grids and just about everything else, Israel can offer indispensable help." Both the US and China have hundreds of civilians in their cyber warfare programs other than those officially government. India must aim not only to match cyber threat but outpace them for adequate deterrence through investments in terms of manpower, technology, money and optimizing strategic partnerships. To deter being attacked in cyberspace, we must develop abilities with respect to our adversaries to include: stop them from accessing and using our critical information systems and services; ability to stealthily extract information from their networks and computers including vulnerabilities, plans of cyber attacks and war; ability to penetrate their networks undetected and stealthy insertion of dormant codes, to be activated at opportune time to thwart cyber attacks; ability to manipulate and doctor radio transmissions; ability to destroy their computer networks, if and when necessary, and; ability to manipulate their perceptions – in line with ongoing global research on the issue. Israel is hosting the Homeland Security (HLS) and Cyber 2016 International Conference in November 2016. Indian participation in the same would be good. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel early next year, should also give necessary impetus to Indo-Israel cyber security cooperation.