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Digital era is not only making our daily lives easier and more productive, but it is also bringing new challenges to the society. In the pre-world wars period, the wars were fought in two dimensions, namely land and sea. With the discovery of flying, the wars became three-dimensional: land, sea, and the airspace.

And now, with our reach to the cyberspace, a new dimension has been added to the battleground. Just like the airspace, from the outside it looks invisible, but it has its own boundaries and highly sophisticated infrastructure and ecosystem. With the introduction of the cloud computing, all the data, resource planning, and deployment has been migrated and decentralized from its core locations.

In all the previous wars, regional or the world wars, human casualties (soldiers and the civilians) were always the major factor for the outcomes of the winners and losers. However, in the cyberspace wars, human casualty is not the case. Rather, it depends on the understanding, sophistication, and attacking of the vulnerable sites of the opponent (enemy).

In most of the cases, the major objectives are to cyberattack enemy’s infrastructure, supply chain, digital storage sites, operating systems, economic, financial and the information processing centers. As more and more local, state, central governments and military operations are migrating to the cloud servers, it is creating increased vulnerability to the national security.

As a result, data and security breaches are becoming more common by penetrating malicious viruses onto the servers through phishing, malware, ransomware, and social engineering. Additionally, with the help of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), cyberattacks are getting very discrete and sophisticated.

The advanced countries are using the cyberspace for establishing their superiority and every western power is trying to position itself strategically in this space to outmaneuver the others. In the past, the US was considered the undisputed leader in the intelligence arena.

However, with the current race to dominate the world, China and Russia have made so many advancements that have brought all these three countries on a par with each other. Before the cyberspace race, five-eyes club was created to share the intelligence among its member countries, namely the US, Canada, Australia, and the New Zealand. Now, with the focus on the cyberspace warfare, two distinct groups have emerged. The top tier includes the US, China, and Russia. The second-tier group includes the UK, Israel, Iran, and North Korea.

The history of the cyberspace is as old as the internet. And these two entities are so much intertwined with each other that it is difficult to separate them. The current generation has very vivid memories of the internet evolution that speeded up as soon as the Clinton-Gore administration got in the White House in 1993.

The administration initiated the Digitized Information Technology as its top priority for creating technology (dotcom) driven economy that led to National Information Infrastructure. With the internet’s popularity and its adoption at the speed of light, Vice President Al Gore coined the phrase “Information Superhighway” that became overnight popular and a hot topic of everyday conversations.

In 1990, there were just a few thousand computers having the internet access but by 1996 (just three years of the Clinton administration), about ten million computers were connected with the internet. Since then, the internet adoption has exploded and by the year end (2021), it is estimated that the number of the devices (IoT) connected to the internet will reach over 45 billion!

With the stellar success of the internet (IoT) and the cyberspace data storage servers, its vulnerability has also heightened. And as a result of this, viruses, hackers, malware, phishing, ransomware, bugs, etc., are proliferating the digital domain exponentially.

Additionally, with the continued evolution of the technology, cyberattacks are getting very common, first by the private individuals, technology geeks, cybercriminals and later by the state-sponsored actors, their proxies, and the digital mercenaries.

The first major cyberattack happened in 2010 that paralyzed Iran’s Uranium enriching operations. This incident sent tremors and shockwaves all across the security circles of the western powers and created an immediate urgency for developing stronger firewalls & safety protocols and raising higher rail guards for fending off the intruders, criminals, proxies, and the mercenaries in order to protect their national securities.

Fast moving forward to the present, the cyberattacks are not only increasing in volume but are also getting more sophisticated, placing private as well as the public organizations; including the government agencies; at elevated risks of security and data breaches. Latest data shows that the cyberattacks are getting more frequent in all sectors; equally in numbers at both, government sites and the private sector, like corporations, banks, credit cards companies, financial institutions, to name a few.

In the recent past, Aramco (Saudi national oil company suffered its major data deletion from its over 30,000 computers), RasGas (Qatari National Gas Company; currently called Qatar Gas) Colonial pipeline (US oil supplying company), JBS meatpacking company, Investment Banks, State Department, Treasury department, Telecoms, Airlines, Travel agencies, Hospitals, Department stores and the list keeps growing. They all have suffered their security breaches compromising their own sensitive data and of their customers, users, and business partners.

In many of these cases, it is difficult to draw a line which one was state sponsored, or their proxies led event, and which one was by the cybercriminals looking just to extortion, ransom, or just to blackmail.

In the recent times, an Israeli intelligence company has been in the news headlines all over the world for supplying a very sophisticated spyware to anyone who is willing to pay the price. This has pushed every nation to look into their own national security protocols and infrastructure more closely to identify the vulnerable gaps in their systems for the cyberattacks and how to protect their sensitive information and national security data from the bad actors.

In order to safeguard one’s sensitive data, its storage, and the processing servers, it is not enough just to building stronger fire walls, higher guard rails and fool-proof security protocols to fending off any type of hackers and intruders. But it is also of paramount importance when selecting an outside cybersecurity firm not to use a telecom company, its subsidiary, or a firm that uses patchwork approach for designing, monitoring, and remediating the threats.

Any lapses in the selection process could be very costly and sometimes irreversible resulting in goodwill erosion, business loss, and lengthy legal litigations and forced management expulsion by the board of directors, shareholders, and other groups.

To conclude, cybersecurity must be taken exceptionally seriously by the governments, more than the conventional warfare and traditional spying/intelligence networks. Any lapses in the cybersecurity could result in paralyzing the entire national defence arsenal regardless of how powerful, advanced, or sophisticated that may be.

Similarly, for outsourcing the cybersecurity by the government agencies and the businesses alike, firm’s selection must be based on its credentials (certification), experience, scalability, and how do they keep up with the latest technological advancements in the cybersecurity ecosystem and what protocols do they follow for training their staff. Additionally, to make sure that the firm is fully integrated (not patchwork) and automated for real-time (twenty-four-seven) monitoring, detecting, isolating all possible threats, and remediating them seamlessly in the shortest possible time.

(The writer is Executive Director, Polykemya International. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the newspaper)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

Dr Jamil Khan

The writer is Executive Director, Polykemya International

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