Power is a gravitational pull. It attracts one and all. Countless wars are fought. Several regimes are jigged. Military coups are routine. Revolutions, bloody or bloodless, occur now and then. Elections in modern day democracies are widely contested. All of this is power play. What’s intriguing is the technique used by the entity concerned to acquire power. At macro level, nations have moved on from artillery warfare to an era marked by diplomatic negotiations via a transition phase which triggered nations to build and preserve nuclear capabilities. But now the power landscape has transformed.
The world has entered the digital age. The internet revolution has logged in. The world is surfing on new battlegrounds. Battlegrounds that are virtual. Battlegrounds that belong to the cyberspace. It is in this parallel universe that strategic cyber wars are fought to conduct sabotage and espionage. Cyber warfare is a form of information warfare sometimes seen as analogous to conventional warfare. Nations are engaging in cyber warfare to acquire power over other nations and to maintain their political hegemony in the world. Computer control is the key security system that guards several nations’ clandestine nuclear programmes, ambitious space missions and numerous other imperative mechanisms that enable the Government to carry out day-to-day administration. Cyber warfare hacks this security system. It disables the functioning of these mechanisms. Government is rendered useless. Chaos follows. In such a scenario, one can gauge the vitality of an online computer defence system. Several countries are investing in an army consisting of cyber specialists, hackers, computer worms and viruses. Such a virtual army may launch an attack on other such armies or may retaliate in case of a virtual attack.
Virtual sabotage and espionage:
The Protect America Act of 2007 led to the creation of a secret NSA program called US-984XN — also known as PRISM. NSA analysts were encouraged to use data coming from both Prism and from the fibre-optic cables. Prism, as its name suggests, helps narrow and focus the stream of information. It leverages the direct access the NSA has to the Internet's major pipelines and then uses court orders authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to collect specific data from tech companies. The nature of data is unquestioned. Data can be private, sensitive or confidential. PRISM has access to personal data of individuals, sensitive data of countless organizations and confidential data of several countries. In today’s day and age an individual’s life is captured by the internet, thanks to user friendly communication portals such as Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and the like.
PRISM is that tool which facilitates the exercise of virtual power. It permits the US security agency NSA to play God in the world of internet. PRISM controls all the personal data that is out there in the cyber space. The PRISM program can be compared to the fictional eye of Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings.” To quote Lord of the Rings – “Concealed within its fortress, the great Eye sees all. Its gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth, and flesh. A great Eye, lidless, wreathed in flame.” Yes, the PRISM program too, in the cyberspace, sees all. It infringes upon the privacy of individuals and disregards their fundamental freedoms. Moreover, it doesn’t even spare other nations or heads of those nations. For instance, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, was snooped upon too. The real reason to promote PRISM was to acquire virtual power under the pretext of national security. The true objective was to know about fellow nations’ progress in the cyberspace. Empirical evidence suggests that when US learned about Iran’s nuclear mission it launched Stuxnet (a computer virus) to negate the mission. All these incidents strengthen the snooping culture. It makes one think - why this unprecedented militarisation of online communications infrastructure?
“Every historical moment is headlined by a handful of individuals from whom the abuse of power and authority elicits extraordinary acts of courage. In blowing the whistle on the wanton misconduct of governments — be it lying to citizens, intruding on their private affairs, or colluding with vested interests — these figures set aside their personal concerns for the greater public good. As Daniel Ellsberg, Bradley Manning, Shanmugham Manjunath and Satyendra Dubey all found out, whistleblowers run the risk of persecution, solitary confinement, harassment, and even death.” (The Hindu) Yet they soldier on. Edward Snowden has joined this pantheon of heroes. A former NSA analyst, Snowden decided to leak the PRISM program which he felt curtailed the basic human rights of netizens. Back home he has been labelled as a traitor. Many believe that this act of his was an act to hog limelight. “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the U.S. government is doing,” he said in an interview. Snowden’s courage and moral persuasion in the face of extreme odds are an inspiration to defenders of civil liberties everywhere.
Is US justified in doing what it did?
According to NSA, “Information collected under the PRISM program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect. It is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.” US security systems’ invasion of people’s privacy is seen as mandatory infringement to ensure the greater good i.e. national security. It can be conceded that national security is of prime importance to any nation. But is the US justified in traversing such uncharted distances to protect the nation that its own people have to undergo virtual scrutiny? Is the US justified of playing God in the cyberspace? Several factions in the US have deemed the PRISM programme as domestic militarization of communication system. Following is the opinion of the US’ influential Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) - “We must recognise that Internet freedom starts at home. We must discourage censorship; surveillance; and content blocking, prioritising or de-prioritising whenever possible. If unavoidable, such actions must be time-limited, narrowly tailored and undertaken in an open and transparent process. Finally, we must eschew attempts to deputise online intermediaries into law enforcement. If the United States cannot maintain a free and open Internet, it is unlikely [that] other nations will do so.”
Cyber warfare consists of several distinct issues: degrading an enemy’s military capabilities, penetrating networks to shut down civilian infrastructure, web based criminal activity and cyber espionage. But its objective is one: to acquire, consolidate and exercise virtual power. Stuxnet, the first publicly disclosed cyber weapon, continues to baffle military strategists, computer security experts, political decision-makers, and the general public. Stuxnet, a 500-kilobyte computer worm infected the software of at least 14 industrial sites in Iran (including a uranium-enrichment plant). The most insidious digital weapons ever it was capable of crippling water supplies, power plants, banks, and the very infrastructure that once seemed invulnerable to attack. A comfortable narrative had formed around the weapon: how it attacked the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz, how it was designed to be undiscoverable, how it escaped scrutiny. Stuxnet was the result of a joint partnership between the US and Israel. Moreover in 2011 the “Duqu” worm was discovered. In 2012, “Flame” worm was discovered and found to be used in cyber espionage in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. The takeaway is that nation-states are spending millions of dollars for the development of these types of cyber weapons, and this is a trend that will simply increase in the future. The era of cyber wars is here.
Cyber warfare: The Indian scenario:
The NSA has no obstacle, technical or legal, in deploying the PRISM tool against India and Indian citizens. With the active cooperation of the world’s biggest internet brands, the NSA is able to tap specific intelligence from India about the issues which have huge implications for its strategic interests in India. While India’s nuclear and space programmes have significant commercial value for American firms, the surveillance of “politics” has huge implications for its foreign policy objectives in the region. “Even before we go to the table, they know what we are going to put on it. It’s not just violation of our sovereignty, it’s a complete intrusion into our decision-making process,” said a senior official of the Ministry of Home Affairs. This busts the myth of close strategic partnership between India and US.
Above all India has a “Centralised Monitoring System (CMS).” It facilitates a “Prism-like” project that allows the government to snoop on phone calls, mobile and Internet traffic. It was developed in the light of 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. The objective of CMS, according to the Rajya Sabha transcripts uploaded on its website, is to create central and regional database to help central and State enforcement agencies in interception and monitoring, eliminating “manual intervention” by telecom service providers enabling “direct electronic provisioning”, “filter and alert creation on target numbers”, and analysis of call data records and data mining. However, in the absence of laws on privacy, won’t such a project lead to gross violations of individual liberty?
Man’s need for power has thrust his will to initiate the process of domination in the cyberspace too. Cyberspace is the product of man’s intelligence. It is he who has created it in the first place. It is pitiable that his hunger for power is distorting this one equal man-made universe we have. Dependence on complex cyber systems for support of military and economic activities creates new vulnerabilities that can be exploited. It is out of the hope to exploit these vulnerabilities that virtual power is born. It is said that with great power comes great responsibility. However, in the cyberspace the veil of anonymity allows power seekers to shirk responsibility.
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