India links Pakistan to a terror cyber attack


Tacstrat

Violence in northeast India in mid-July sparked by text-message rumors of imminent reprisal attacks by Muslims against migrant workers and minority groups demonstrated a potent new cyber weapon that could be employed by terrorists, anarchists, and state actors. The speed by which these false messages proliferated coupled with the enormous difficulties in preventing such cyberattacks and determining who is behind them illustrate a new security vulnerability for all nations with mature internet and cell phone networks.

With the aim of fomenting social instability and precipitating social unrest, the mobile connectivity of India was used to transmit mass disinformation to amplify existing ethnic and communal tensions with deadly impact. India is especially vulnerable to such attacks because it has vast numbers of cell phone users, simmering ethnic and religious tensions in many regions, and a government with a poor record of quickly quashing the kind of rumors spread by the recent text message attack.

Background

In mid-July, ethnic tensions in Assam, India boiled over and resulted in the deaths of four individuals from the Bodo people, an ethnic community concentrated in northeastern India. The alleged perpetrators were Indian Muslims seeking revenge for another incident in which student leaders from their community were attacked.

On August 15, mass text and SMS messages began to flood into India, reportedly from Pakistan. Disturbing images also appeared on Indian social network internet forums. The messages warned that Muslims were launching revenge attacks against Indians in Assam and claimed that similar attacks would follow in major cities. The images and messages inspired panic as Indians fearing for family and friends forwarded the information, causing the disinformation to spread like wildfire.

Fearing reprisal attacks, migrant workers fled and a mass exodus began. Thousands of migrant workers and students fled several major Indian cities, including Bangalore, Mumbai and others. Workers jammed train stations, overwhelming the already stressed public transportation infrastructure.

Clashes and violence continued to breakout between Muslims, migrant workers and members of the Bodo community in the Assam Valley and urban centers around India. On August 18, India’s Home Secretary R.K Singh stated “Morphed pictures, false messages were used to provocate people and trigger panic” . . . “the bulk of these were uploaded in Pakistan.” The Indian government moved slowly and it took several days before police forces were deployed to the affected areas. A curfew was initiated and officials called for civilians to remain calm, but attempts by security forces to restore order mostly fell on deaf ears.

The Indian government sought to stem the tide of misinformation by cutting off mass text messaging and SMS capabilities throughout the country. In addition, the government shuttered specific Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts believed to be involved in distributing the false information. However, Indian efforts to censor internet sites have been criticized as inept and ineffective.

Indian investigators claim to have tracked most of the text messages, SMS, and social networking posts back to Pakistan. India’s Home Minister accused Pakistan of the cyber attack, but Pakistani officials quickly denied any involvement and demanded proof of Pakistani involvement.

The Hindustan Times reported that intelligence agencies traced the text messages to members of Harkat-ul-Jehad al Islami (HuJi), a Bangladeshi-based terrorist group that operates in Pakistan and the Popular Front of India (PFI), which is reportedly a new umbrella organization for the banned Muslim-extremist group, Students Islamic Movement of India.

The ethnic battles and communal clashes in India over the last month have grown into the worst and most widespread violence of its kind in more than a decade. Reports estimate that over 90 people have died and more than 400,000 people have fled, seeking refuge in makeshift camps.

Analysis

The implications of this cyber attack are very serious, especially for nations with ethnic or sectarian tensions and large numbers of cellular phone users. In many ways, this attack is the reverse of how cell phones and the Internet were used during the mass protests after the June 2009 Iranian presidential election and during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. New communications technology was used during these events to organize protesters, evade government forces, and communicate with the outside world. Now, it seems these new ungovernable, modes of communication are being used to instill mass hysteria and violence.

The situation in Assam was already a tinderbox before text messages and social media images allegedly sparked violence and a mass exodus. While the Indian government’s accusations that Pakistani-based cyber attacks sparked this violence appear credible, it is possible that the violence also had other causes and that the government is trying to deflect the blame from itself by playing up the cyber warfare angle.

75 percent of India’s population – more than 900 million individuals – have mobile phones. As a result, the ability to spread disinformation using this technology is not an unimaginable feat or difficult endeavor to imagine.

As Zubin Wadia, CEO of CiviGuard Technologies, a provider of emergency communications platforms for civilians explained, “Cyber-terrorists who seek to create this level of panic understand that SMS usage is extensive and mature across India. With SMS applied across such a wide demographic, it would be relatively simple for cyber terrorists to accumulate a cache of cellphone numbers within target regions and dispatch messages to them.”

It is possible, albeit questionable, that the perpetrators were able to achieve the network effect and critical mass necessary to cause widespread social upheavals simply by distributing the threatening messages over social networking platforms and sending them to a handful of cell phones. Nevertheless, a strong case can be made that a more coordinated, targeted, and well planned distribution strategy was responsible.

Whether or not HuJi or PFI is directly responsible is still unclear. It is apparent that perpetrators of this fear campaign had a good understanding of Indian ethnic and communal tensions. They also knew how best to craft messages that would garner a forceful and emotionally-triggered response.

Conclusion

The recent India text message cyber attack is a form of cyber warfare exploiting the prevalence of both mobile phones and social networking to instigate widespread social instability and violence. The implications from this cyber attack are clear: cell phone text messages can be a frighteningly effective weapon that can be easily employed by terrorists, anarchists, and state actors. Authorities in free societies cannot easily curtail the resulting violence from such attacks. Totalitarian regimes will likely see this incident as validation for their censorship policies.

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