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The Rediff Special/ Priya Ganapati

War in Cyberspace

It is quiet in cyberspace.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's visit to India this week for talks with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has not yet sparked off cyberwar.

Every event in India-Pakistan relations, after all, finds an echo in cyberspace these days.

Is the Indian government so desperately in need of fresh ideas that they had to resort to hijacking their own plane in order to find something to pin on Pakistan?

Are the Indian people so disillusioned that they think Kargil was a victory?

Does India really believe it can silence thousands of Kashmiris by murdering defenseless children and raping virtuous women?

These are lines posted on the defaced web site of the Indian Science Congress Association, one of the country's premier scientific organisations. The ISC web site was hacked in December 1999 by a hacker group called m0s. The group left a message on the front door of the site: "Happy 2000, you pathetic fools!!! Pakistan OWNS!! [This defacement dedicated to all the Kashmiris senselessly MURDERED by the Indian Govt over 50 years!]"

Indo-Pak animosity is entrenched deeply in virtual space. As in the real world, Kashmir is the bone of contention online too. The tussle for Kashmir has found a new outlet, cyberspace. And it has a new name, Hacktivism.

Hacktivism bridges the realm between hacking and activism. Its champions are not motivated by the thrill or challenge of exploiting/attacking computers or their networks. Nor are they interested in making money. They believe they are activists and use their skills to make political statements and launch protests against the 'enemy' government and industry.

Hacking for the thrill of it has become passť. Activists on both sides of the border have a mission now: to be one up on each other in cyberspace.

Clubs of hackers owing allegiance to either India or Pakistan repeatedly break into web sites to prove their point. There are chat rooms where the next hack is plotted and anti-India/anti-Pakistan venom is spewed. There are mailing lists where software professionals pontificate on the threats to India's computer and telecom networks.

For the fanatics on either side, this is a whole new world.

The most popular form of hacktivism is defacing Web pages. And here groups owing allegiance to Pakistan have an upper hand.

Statistics from attrition.org, a web site that tracks computer security related developments on the Internet, show that attacks on Indian cyberspace increased from 4 in 1999 to 72 in 2000. These numbers cover only the attacks carried out on domains ending with '.in'. In contrast, the Pakistani cyber space was infiltrated 7 times in 1999 and 18 times in 2000.

This year has been worse. According to India Cracked, a site that tracks defacements of Indian web sites, over 150 Indian sites have already been hacked into in the first six months. Most of these break ins had a strong pro-Pakistan flavour to them. The hacked Web sites sported anti-India messages. Experts believe they are the handiwork of Pakistani hacker groups.

The genesis of the Indo-Pak cyberwar can be traced to the Pokhran II tests in May 1998. Soon after the tests were announced, a group of hackers called milw0rm broke into the Bhabha Atomic Research Center web site and posted anti-India and anti-nuclear messages. While milw0rm is not believed to be a Pakistani group, their action led to the birth of hacktivism. The BARC is the Indian atomic energy programme's top research organisation.

During the 1999 Kargil skirmish, Indo-Pak relations online hit a new low. Hackers from both sides resorted to defacing web sites of key institutions in each country and used the space to present their points of view.

One of the earliest Indian sites to be hacked was http://www.armyinkashmir.com, established by the Indian government to provide factual information about daily events in the Kashmir Valley. The hackers posted photographs showing Indian military forces allegedly killing Kashmiri militants. The pictures sported captions like 'Massacre,' Torture,' 'Extrajudicial execution' and 'The agony of crackdown' and blamed the Indian government for its alleged atrocities in Kashmir.

Their Indian cyberspace counterparts maintained a stoic silence. The site resumed its updates within a few days. A few months later, though, it slipped into oblivion.

Though a cease-fire was declared in Kargil, the war online did not die down.

Last year, pro-Pakistan cyber warriors attacked Indian Science Congress 2000 and the National Informatics Centre. They also invaded the web site of the State-run international voice carrier Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited and posted anti-India messages. While ISC changed the URL of its site and erased all traces of the hack, NIC and VSNL cleansed their sites and continued on.

In December, a pro-Indian hacker broke into a Pakistani web site www.pak.gov.org. The site was not the official web site of the Pakistan government and the hack earned more ridicule than respect.

"Anti-Indian hackers have been very active for a while now. There are lots of groups -- like GForce Pakistan, mOs, WFD, PHC and Silver Lords -- that have tried to deface Indian sites regularly," says Srijith K, who runs India Cracked.

While the Pakistani presence on the Web is rather insignificant, there is no denying that Pakistani hackers have inflicted more damage on Indian sites than vice-versa.

As the numbers from Attrition and IndiaCracked show, Indian sites are more often at the receiving end. Two months ago, the external affairs ministry web site was hacked into by G Force, a Pakistani hacker club.

Enoguh jokes, you pathetic Indian geeks @ gov have again owned once again by a group of cyber crusuders known as GFORCE was the message left behind on the MEA site.

Some prominent web sites that have fallen victims to the Pakistanis include government sites like the UP government site on NICNET, the ministry of information technology web site, company sites like Mahindra & Mahindra and chat rooms like the rediff chat. A complete list of the defaced web sites and their mirror, which is a screen capture of the hacked web site, can be found at http://www.attrition.org/mirror/attrition/in.html

Most of the pro-Pakistan hacker groups do not consist solely of Pakistani citizens. The group is more likely to have members who are of Pakistani origin, now based in countries like US and England.

Two of the most active pro-Pakistan hacker groups are G-Force and the Pakistan Hackers Club.

G Force holds the dubious distinction of wreaking the maximum havoc on Indian web sites. The trophy list for this band of 'jehadis' boasts of names like the Asian Age newspaper, Aptech India, Bombay university, Gujarat government and GlaxoWellcome India.

Their style is simple. They either pick web sites with a huge domestic audience or governmental sites. Their messages are profane, insulting and lack visual appeal. With its warped sense of humour G Force, along with propaganda about Kashmir, usually puts up a few jokes about Indians on the pages they hack.

"In an interview I had done with G-Force, they revealed that members of the group are mostly Pakistanis. In their words, 'We deface web sites for a cause, which is for the good of our Muslim brothers.' So, this group is quite motivated ideologically," says Srijith.

The other group giving Indian network administrators sleepless nights is the Pakistan Hackers Club. Led by 'Dr Nuker,' a handle used by its leader, the Pakistan Hackers Club does not strike randomly at every site, but makes calculated moves.

The group has to its credit the hacking of web sites like the department of electronics; the Ahmedabad online telephone directory; the Parliament home page; and the United Nations, India sites.

PHC usually goes for the big names in web sites. Parliament's home page, for example. Like G Force, 'Dr Nuker' and his boys work to spread the word about the freedom of Kashmir. But, unlike the G Force group, PHC is less crude, and there is not too much profanity in the messages posted.

Other groups strike sporadically. mOs, WFD and Silver Lords are some names that crop up frequently on hacked Indian web sites.

In January, the WFD group hacked into the technology ministry web site and flashed 'Pakistan Zindabad' on the hacked front page. The hack was discovered quickly and the site restored to its original self soon.

In contrast to the plethora of Pakistani cyber warriors, India hardly has any hacking groups. "I have not seen much of anti-Pakistan defacements from Indian crackers. There is only one group that has shown some recent activity. H2O or the Hindustan Hackers Organisation has defaced a fair bit of Pak themed web sites," says Srijith.

What spawns the army of anti-India hackers online?

Ideological motivation is the main reason. Apart from that, hacking into Indian web sites can also be the shortest route to 15 minutes of fame.

"Most Pakistani groups consist of school or college-going teenagers. They take pride in bringing down Indian and major Western web sites, leaving behind messages in support of so-called Kashmiri freedom fighters. Their tactics have also earned them 'recognition' at the New York Times and CNN, which is a feather in their caps," says Zunaira Durrani, a writer with SPIDER, a Pakistani Internet magazine.

Hacktivism comes in other shades too. Mailing lists, chat rooms, letters to newspapers online are all fair game when it comes to fighting the 'enemy'.

Hacktivism is not always destructive. For instance, c4i, a mailing list devoted to discussing threats to India's information infrastructure, has many moderates on its rolls.

There are hardly any provocative messages, and discussions are limited to posting articles and arguing about the threats to India's computer and telecom networks from external agencies like China, Pakistan and extremist groups.

Pakistan too has a few mailing lists that can be found on Yahoo groups. But these are sparsely populated and hardly used. Hacker clubs are preferred.

What makes Indians, despite their acknowledged superiority in IT, less combative online?

First, the Indian hacking community is unorganised and prefers to work alone. Indian laws actively discourage those who want to hack for a lark. Under the Indian Information Technology Act, 2000, hacking is an offence and irrespective of its objective could attract a penalty of up to Rs 10 million (Rs 1 crore).

More importantly, Indian hackers lack the religious and ideological motivation to strike at Pakistani web sites.

"Most Indians have good jobs in the well-developed Indian software industry. Talented and educated people who are not gainfully and productively employed tend to become crackers. Countries like Pakistan, Brazil, Philippines, Colombia and Russia have well-educated and capable IT professionals, but no software industry worth the name. Since these professionals remain unemployed or underemployed, they turn to cracking," explains Ravi Visvesvaraya Prasad, an IT consultant who has been actively studying information warfare and its consequences on India.

As Indian web sites fall prey to Pakistani hackers, the Indian government has adopted a lackadaisical attitude. Since Kashmir, the bone of contention between the two countries cannot be won over the Internet, the government seems to be taking it easy.

Two months after the external affairs ministry web site was hacked, the site is not up yet. Soon after the incident, the MEA spokesperson assured reporters the site would be back with improved security. Sources close to the ministry are clear the site will be shut for some more time.

Musharraf's visit has not yet sparked off incidents online. But experts believe a few attacks are around the corner, probably after the Agra summit concludes.

"While the summit happens offline, online there are elements who are bound to create some disruptions. Going by the past, it is more likely that Pakistani hackers will break into Indian sites and prove a point. They are lying low, but they are definitely not gone," says a keen follower of Indo-Pak relations in cyberspace.

Cyber security experts fear that hacktivism, if unchecked, could emerge as a threat to diplomacy. Information warfare, they believe, will be the way the battles of the future are fought.

"Hacktivism brings the methods of guerrilla theatre and graffiti to cyberspace. It can be conducted by individuals acting alone or in groups. It can exhibit elements of art and theatre. It can even be humorous. But it is not benign, and it threatens diplomatic missions. It can compromise sensitive or classified information and sabotage or disrupt operations. At the very least, it can be an embarrassment to those attacked and erode public confidence in the government," warns Dorothy E Denning, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University in the USA.

Despite stringent laws against hacking, the Indian government is handicapped. While it can trace where the hack has originated from, there is little else that can be done. Even if the hackers are traced, it is generally not considered worthwhile to get them extradited and prosecuted.

"While the Information Technology Act provides for extra territorial jurisdiction, the condition is that at least one of the computers involved in the crime be located in India. Also, the validity of such extraterritorial jurisdiction is doubtful under international law," explains Prasad. "Under normal extradition law, India can extradite people to stand trial in India only if the offence is also a criminal offence in the country in which the suspect is located. Since most countries like the Philippines do not explicitly define cracking as a crime, it would not be legally possible to extradite the crackers to stand trial in India."

Design: Dominic Xavier

The Rediff Specials

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