The New PM’s Cyber Challenge - The New Indian Express

The New PM’s Cyber Challenge

Published: 11th May 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 10th May 2014 12:35 PM

This time next week we will probably know who is going to be our new Prime Minister. Undoubtedly, this year’s General Election has been the most technologically driven in the history of India. There were extensive social media campaigns, smartphone apps, Google Hangout sessions, and even hugely popular ‘I voted’ selfies. None of this was, of course, surprising.

After all we live in 2014.

What was indeed surprising was how not one political party in the country has a comprehensive digital policy. The manifestos of all the parties were littered with empty words that would make management gurus proud. Words like ‘smart city’, ‘knowledge hub’, ‘hardware capital’ were freely thrown around. Many of the leaders who were saying them and most of the voters who were hearing them did not have a clue of what those words meant and did not care. Nevertheless, when a new PM swears in next week, his and his advisor’s technological visions will have a huge impact on the country and its future. There are many ways in which the future PM could make a positive difference. Like making broadband Internet a fundamental right. Or transforming the Bangalores and the Hyderabads into the next Silicon Valley rather than just being IT back offices to the world. But there are two major issues which could jeopardise our dream of India being a peaceful,

prosperous democracy.

The first is the biggest threat that our democracy has ever faced. The outgoing government has put in place all the building blocks that are needed to make a very effective surveillance state like the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and the biometric information-loaded Aadhar cards. And the Netra surveillance network which intercepts our data traffic using keyword searches and which uses the same Bluecoat technology that Assad uses in Syria is supposed to go live in the coming months. As the Open Democracy blog puts it eloquently, “(India), one of the most corrupt countries in the world, is implementing many controversial surveillance schemes which lack transparency, accountability and adequate legal backing, and which are largely being carried out in secret. And to make matters worse, India lacks privacy legislation. Over a billion people in a democratic regime are exposed to inadequately regulated surveillance schemes, while a local surveillance industry is thriving without any checks or balances whatsoever.” This is only going to get worse in the next five years as advanced technologies like facial recognition will become commercially available. If the next Prime Minister has the slightest inclination to do so, (which politician in this country does not?) then we are in the danger of becoming a very dangerous surveillance state.

The second is the absence of a strong cyber security mechanism to protect the country and its institutions from cyberterrorism. This is an issue that is not unique to India. With most infrastructural systems like water supply, electricity, telecommunications, transport and the most terrifying of all, nuclear plants getting digitised and with technology enabling terrorists to get their hands on destructive software easily, even nations like the US and the UK are very very afraid of an imminent cyberterrorist attack. Much like the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, these attacks could cripple the country in ways that are unimaginable. Any laxity in putting in place a strong cyber security culture could prove catastrophic in the long term and it is up to the next Prime Minister to take that initiative.

History will judge the next Prime Minister on how well he balances keeping the country from becoming an Orwellian nightmare with protecting us from a cyberterrorism nightmare.

Matham is a tech geek. Follow him on Twitter @AdarshMatham

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