Preparing Pakistan for a cyber war

October 17, 2012


If there is anybody who can be considered a real-life Frankenstein, it is probably Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Much like the monster created by the protagonist in the Mary Shelley classic, the internet has become an uncontrollable creature with its ever-expanding claws that keep on seducing everyone into its control.

There has been much concern in scholarly and government circles, especially over the last decade, over the increased usage and reliance on internet and technology in general. With incidents like computer systems of major organisations being hacked into and the company websites being vandalised, the ramifications of the increased reliance on technology have become ever so important to be addressed.

In a society like Pakistan, where volatile law and order situation is a perpetual cause for concern, the cyber world holds as much possibilities as it does threats. Where the world is going digital with almost everything being controlled through computer systems now, the threat of hacking and one-off cyber attacks turning into planned, politically aligned cyber terrorist attacks are increasingly becoming the nightmare that turn into reality.

We have all heard of Pakistan and India engaging in this cyber banter of sorts where both sides hack into government and intelligence organisations websites from the other side and deface them, consider this turning ugly and both sides actually manage to locate and hack into nuclear systems of the neighbouring country.

Measures to counter an increasing threat of a cyber war need to be taken. Considering this trend, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) has been organising panel discussions and lectures under their ‘Initiative of Internet and Society (IIS).’ One of these lectures was held on October 16, 2012 at the LUMS campus pertaining to technology and the threat of cyber terrorism that looms large over us.

The panel comprised Taimur Rehman, a professor at the Political Science department in LUMS, who is also the lead singer of LAAL band and a social activist, spoke about the potential of the ‘greater good’ that the internet holds for us and Maajid Nawaz, who is a political activist and the founder of Quilliam and Khudi, two initiatives focused on counter-extremism. The discussion was moderated by Professor Junaid Ahmed, a professor at the Law and Policy department in LUMS.

The focus of the speakers was on the dependence on technology, its ramifications, with its trans-national nature, can have very far reaching consequences therefore steps need to be taken at the governmental level in order to effectively channel the use of technology. One thing that very clearly reflected through the perspectives of all the panelists was that while channeling of the use of internet and technology through government supervision is a necessary step however a dictatorial nature of this supervision is not the solution.

Access to information should be free for all and supervision is required in how to deal with all the information at our disposal and not with regards to being dictated as to what one should access. In fact, while considering the use of YouTube-esque podcasts for his class lectures, Taimur Reham lamented the prevailing ban on YouTube which he could instead be using as visual-aid for his lectures.

While there was discussion on either perspective as to the ends technology could potentially be used to achieve, there was complete endorsement by the panelists that Pakistan is a rapidly developing market for internet and technology.

It was revealed that in the past decade the number of internet users in Pakistan has increased from meager 133,900 at the turn of the new century to a massive 31 million people in 2012. Maajid Nawaz warned of the threat of a large scale disruption and destruction such a massive number of internet-dependent users could turn into, considering Pakistani systems like the sewage, waterworks, railways etc. turn to computer controlling.

Nawaz cited the examples of a 2001 attack on the sewage works of Australia where 800 litres of untreated sewage was channeled to the waterworks of Australia affecting thousands, if not millions of lives. This, he made sure to emphasise was carried out by an angered ex-employee who wanted to get even with his employers for relieving him of his duties. Had this been a planned, politically driven attack this would have had serious effects and, according to Nawaz, would have been labeled as a terrorist threat albeit not a traditional one.

This potential for a new age cyber war seems even more grave when one considers that terrorist organisations have developed technology cells that equip, train and develop their personnel for a tech-savvy world. Malala Yousafzai could potentially be in danger if the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan decides to engage their jihadi geeks to hack into the Birmingham hospital’s systems where Malala is being treated.

This is not a far-fetched concoction because in 2010, Nawaz said at the panel, a Chicago hospital’s systems collapsed and the staff was reduced to using pen and paper. Even the US themselves may turn to a cyber arms race, which quite similar to the nuclear arms race, is building up of stockpiles of software and malware to attack computer systems of rival states. However, the co-dependence that technology, a global economy and the internet have brought could ensure a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

So the threat and the potential for harm does exist and it is ever so clear that the globalised nature of internet is as much a threat for humanity as it is a potential for a global marketplace for ideas. Governments need to address such threats with the perspective of promoting and allowing free access to the vast resources of internet and developing strategies to tackle the way people make use of these resources.

“As an academic space, we are trying to make efforts into creating space for more discussion, research and activity into understanding the internet, it’s potential, it’s negative and positive impact on society, especially in the Pakistani context,” said Kiran Nazish, who is the project coordinator for IIS and a fellow at Lums. She added, “with such hyperactive social media in Pakistan it is critical to study the potential and limitations of the internet, it is important to find out where the internet is going. It is crucial academics to try and better understand the landscape of internet, in Pakistan.”