Bangla Sunday, July 12, 2020

Covid-19: Pakistan’s cyber-security needs urgent attention

ISSUE-3-ENG-30-06-2020-Cyber

The Covid-19 pandemic still remains the most dominant factor affecting the global scenario. Neither the superpowers nor the developing countries have been spared by this curse. The whole world is in a crisis, whether it’s a super power or a State like Pakistan, which has already been facing an external threat and internal instability. Like every other State in the world, to continue routine activities, Pakistan has shifted its workload to online databases. 

The shift to the online forum has increased the dependence on the internet making the country equally concerned about ensuring its cyber security. The safeguards and security systems of Pakistan’s cyber infrastructure are not so protective keeping in view the dynamic nature of cyber security. 

The Pakistani government had recently launched its Digital Pakistan Policy which has acquired renewed significance in the current pandemic. Although it is a good initiative, there are loopholes that need to be addressed as the Covid-19 crisis seems to be prolonging indefinitely. There is a need to adopt effective measures so that the weaknesses in the system can be effectively resolved on a priority bases.

The current crisis has adversely impacted educational hubs and other academic institutes which had almost stopped functioning for a while. The government encourages online classes and an on-line examination system. This not only helped schools and universities, but the research think thanks and other organizations were also able to resume their functions by utilizing the online forum. Here, the challenge for a country like Pakistan is the provision of fast and smooth internet connections in all the districts of country.  

Nowadays, students of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and even in some districts of Punjab are facing connectivity issues. Students have raised their voice on this issue through social media forums and student unions. Other than the smooth provision of the internet facility, the State needs to have a robust independent network security system during Covid-19 because of the greater dependence on computer and internet networks. The system has to keep up with the rapidly changing cyber technology. Dependence on foreign developed applications like ‘Zoom’ can be harmful in the long run for privacy. 

Also Read: The cyber threat facing Pakistan

Recently, an intrusion occurred during the webinar of the Institute of Strategic Studies (ISSI) due to a non-encrypted internet connection. In an encrypted connection the risk factor still exists as the de-encrypted data is retained with the developers who can use it for their self-interest to harm the security of any State especially States like Pakistan which are still in the nascent stage of acquiring and developing advanced cyber technology related tools. 

Another such incident occurred wherein the official website of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) was attacked by scammers. Later it was clarified by the HEC that someone just took a screenshot and made changes in its HTML coding and uploaded it to hack the website. Although the scam was carried out in anger by internal elements and was not so harmful and serious, still it’s an alarm bell. One has to be prepared for rising threats and technological challenges that could be hazardous. There is thus a big question mark on Pakistan’s preparedness to face such challenges in the future. 

Covid-19 has quarantined people in their homes; activities are limited to internet and computers. This has provided cyber-criminals with an opportunity to breach privacies and use them for their own interests. During the quarantine, to kill boredom, people are downloading different kinds of applications in their mobile phones and PCs and agreeing to give those applications access to mobile data. This can be harmful.  Data on people can be used to cause damage to personal as well as national security, because this is an era of information warfare. 

Criminals and hackers, whether they are from within the State or outside; or sponsored by rival states, can easily exploit loopholesin the existing cyber infrastructure. Pakistani infrastructure has been attacked several times which includes the banking sector as well as the armed forces infrastructure. For instance,  cyber-attacks were carried out by Indian organization  “Rattle Snake” on the Navy’s Public Relations Branch. It tried to manipulate the statements released by the Public Relations Branch. 

The above mentioned attacks carried out by India before Covid-19, were very alarming and threatening to national security. One can gauge the level of threat during Covid-19 when the whole country is working online. There have been efforts to digitize all the sectors of Pakistan. A whole lot of data will be shifted to data clouds. This may lead to losing control over the data because once data is placed online, it will be available to everyone who can then penetrate easily. That will be hazardous for national security.

To address the threats to data and preserve its national security, Pakistan needs a workable solution to protect its servers to store huge national data. It also needs to maintain backups of the data to be on the safer side. It needs to develop its own strong firewall security software against online viruses and Trojan horses to protect its data rather than being dependent on borrowed technologies and software because dependency on such domains in the longer run can be harmful. Pakistan urgently needs to have a formalized national cyber security policy as an important pillar of national security.