Cyberspace criminals are hard to catch

RK RAGHAVAN | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on August 03, 2016

Spy vs spy: The game’s getting serious

The problem’s in focus in light of the US claiming that Russia hacked into the Democratic Party’s computers

A war of words has broken out between the US and Russia over alleged hacking of the Democratic Party computer systems — twice in the recent past. Timed to coincide with the party’s national convention in Philadelphia last week to choose its nominee for the presidential election, the exchange of invectives has attracted worldwide interest.

The American charge that Russia was trying to interfere in the elections may be far-fetched. However, these days, international politics is a no-holds-barred affair, and ethics take a back seat. Proving a hacking attack is an extremely difficult task. This is especially so when the aggressor and victim are situated in two different sovereign nations.

It is true that US-Russia hostility is as bitter as that of India-Pakistan. Both countries have the cyber capacity to unleash attacks without compromising identity. Every player in such a battle takes care, as far as possible, that the computer used is not physically situated in the targeted nation. That’s why the FBI will find it difficult to locate the offender. If Russia had launched the attack from its own soil or from that of a friendly nation, you cannot expect the latter to cooperate with the FBI.

The fundamentals of security

How can we protect ourselves from hacking? It was not for nothing that Hillary Clinton was lambasted for deploying a private e-mail server for official business. Although she has been let off the hook by the FBI, we do not know whether her server was protected by a strong password and by a powerful firewall.

The fundamentals of computer security — which could help to ward off a potential aggressor, as also identify an aggressor — demand a strong password, difficult to break. More important is that the password is not shared with unauthorised persons. Many recent instances indicate how social engineering has been used to break into a system, after securing the password through deceit.

Hacking is facilitated also through introduction of malware and by acts of phishing. Carelessly exposing computers or email accounts to outsiders contributes to this.

Opening mails from total strangers exposes accounts, from which information is stolen or data messed with. In cyberspace, we cannot let casualness and curiosity get the better of prudence and caution.

Follow the trail

How do we fix a hacker? The latter invariably leaves a trail. Firewall logs often reveal a wealth of information: who came in and who exited; what data came in and what was taken away.

Firewalls may not always be foolproof against an intruder. But they secure a lot of information useful to an investigation, especially when a transgression goes to a court of law. It’s like CCTVs, which help ward off intruders through fear of exposure, and also assist in post-crime investigation.

Any computer system without a firewall has an impending disaster. We don’t know if the Democratic Party computers were adequately protected. Or if it has information provided by a firewall. We need to wait for the FBI to unravel the mystery.

In the ultimate analysis, how do we bring offending nations or persons acting on their behalf to book? It appears there is no international body that can investigate an attack and impose sanctions.

This is why we are as helpless as the Interpol which can, at best, issue a red corner notice in respect of a fugitive, but has no power of sanction against a member-nation that chooses to flout such a notice. Unfortunately, the bully gets away even after is proved that he had caused harm.

The writer was a director of the CBI, and is currently corporate adviser (security) to TCS Ltd, Mumbai

Published on August 03, 2016
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