Fighting hackers is critical for Aadhaar
When India is busy protecting the privacy of a person standing in the queue to update his bank records to check the credit of his social welfare funds with the power broker standing behind to take his cut, hackers are quietly busy fine tuning their skills. There had been certain test cases of attack on utilities in the recent past. Some computers of West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company came under cyber-attack. It happened in four locations in the district of West Midnapur in the month of May. The computers came under the attack of WannaCry, a crypto-ransomware, also known as WannaCrypt. WannaCry, arguably, the biggest ransomware attack the world has ever seen, affected at least 1,00,000 computers spread over 100-150 countries, including India.
The WanaCrypt0r 2.0 bug basically encrypts data on a computer within seconds and displays a message asking the user to pay a ransom of USD 300 in Bitcoins to restore access to the device and the data inside. Some of the facilities hit by the bug are FedEx, European car factories, Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica, Britain's health service and Germany's Deutsche Bahn rail network. In India, apart from the power distribution company in West Bengal, a section of computers at Andhra Pradesh's police departments were hacked. Computers in 18 police units in Chittoor, Krishna, Guntur, Visakhapatnam and Srikakulam districts were affected.
In an interconnected world, a smart hacker can destabilise human life more severely than some nuclear weapons dropped somewhere. Trailers of the possible havoc that can be created were seen in several places. For instance, residents of two apartment buildings in eastern Finland were left in the cold for about a week in October after a hacking attack disabled computers controlling heating and warm water systems. In 2016, Israel and Turkey reported hack attacks. In 2015, hackers infected the workstation of a Ukrainian utility company with malware, triggering an hours-long blackout affecting about 80,000 people in the western part of the country. Ukraine reported that another wave of hacks caused blackouts in Kiev.
The smarter a system, the worse could be the cyber-attack. Take electricity sector for example. The trend is to use smart digital system to stabilise power distribution from different sources, metering system at consumers' premises and also managing the system effectively. Film buffs world over might have enjoyed the hugely popular movies like Ocean's eleven, twelve and thirteen and also the Hollywood version of the Italian Job. Fictional these might be but the world has seen from the incidences mentioned here how vulnerable the smart systems are. Imagine hackers from rogue nations like North Korea accessing computers of the power distribution company of a large US city and the crisis it can create.
We have seen instances of hacking as a regular state-sponsored task to spy on rival nations. In a networked world, nothing is secret. By hacking into, say, the Aadhaar system a hacker can access mobile number, bank account details, and Pan numbers of an individual. True, it will not be worth the effort to syphon off some money from the Jan Dhan accounts – in any case there are local extortionists who would do that – but one does not need much imagination to know where the return on hacking investment lies.
The security environment of banks in India is archaic compared to the sharp hackers acting on a global scale. Only in 2016, many depositors lost money when their debit card details were collected through some malwares. This was a mere curtain raiser. A hacker can access, without much difficulty, the Government revenue network and transfer funds bypassing the firewalls. This can only be prevented if the departments also engage proficient persons to erect firewalls testing on a real time basis the vulnerabilities of the computer system. But given the slow process and the bureaucratic firewall present, engaging cyber experts will always come with a lag giving precious time advantage to a hacker.
Meanwhile, India is arguing over privacy of an individual. The nation is winking at the fact that the real issue is safety of the network, therefore data. In a networked world, it will take much less time for a cyber criminal to destabilise a country than for a missile to hit a target. What is more, even that missile can be guided by the criminal to hit a target of his choice. Network has helped mankind and brought in new threats to peace and stability to human lives.
The solution lies in remaining standalone and not adopting network system. Or better still go back to the paper works. Since this is a retrograde step no nation can afford to move back to the Stone Age. The answer lies in adopting technology with due precaution. Even if somebody manages to hack to Aadhar data base there must be two firewalls. First, it must be contained to the basic information of the bearer, not bank account or Pan details. Second, it should be confined to just the person whose account was hacked and must not lead to the entire database. Taking the example of the electricity sector of EU, it has been seen that realising that the millions of smart meters installed in homes are a tempting target for hackers some countries are choosing "dumber" models out of security fears. The meters that really worry security experts are those that can be remotely switched off. The dangers range from leaving a single house in the dark to causing a widespread blackout by switching smart meters on and off repeatedly. The Netherlands has opted for smart meters without the remote switch-off option.
The threat is real. At the same time, the need for Aadhaar like database cannot be ignored. India must adopt a proper system without dismissing the concern over data security. Creation of the data base is the easy part. Keeping it hacker-proof is critical.
(The views are strictly personal.)