the-wings-of-pegasus-the-epoch-of-cyberweapons

Context: A raging controversy across the world on the misuse of Pegasus spyware has reignited a debate on the role of cyber weapons. 

  • Cyberattacks on institutions such as banks and on critical infrastructure have proliferated to an alarming extent, signalling the emergence of the cyber weapon epoch.
  • While Moore’s Law democratised access to computing, and the Internet opened a whole new avenue for communication, all this is coming at a price. 
    • The Internet has become a powerful weapon in the hands of those seeking to exploit its various facets.
    • Moore's Law refers to Moore's perception that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, though the cost of computers is halved. 
    • Moore's Law states that we can expect the speed and capability of our computers to increase every couple of years, and we will pay less for them.

Cyber warfare

  • Cyber is often touted as the fifth dimension of warfare, in addition to land, sea, air and space. 
  • However, it needs to be understood that cyber, as the domain of military and national security, also co-exists with cyber as a domain of everyday life. It is now directly inside one’s drawing room, with cyberweapons becoming the weapon of choice.
    • Cyberspace had graduated from being merely the new domain of warfare, into becoming fundamentally a civilian space. 
  • Israelis today dominate the cyber domain along with the Chinese, Russians, Koreans and the Americans. 

Recent cyber attacks:

  • Following the joint U.S.-Israeli effort in unleashing the Stuxnet Worm in 2010 which helped disable several hundred centrifuges at the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz.
  • The Shamoon virus attack on Saudi Aramco occurred in 2012. 
  • Thereafter, followed the 2016 cyberattack on Ukraine’s State power grid; the 2017 Ransomware attack (NotPetya) which affected machines in as many as 64 countries
  • Wannacry attack the same year on the United Kingdom’s National Health Service; and 
  • The series of attacks this year on Ireland’s Health Care System and in the United States such as ‘SolarWinds’
  • The cyber attack on Colonial Pipeline and JBS, etc.

The Pegasus spyware

  • It is stated it can copy messages that are sent or received, ‘harvest photos and record calls, secretly film through the phone’s camera, or activate the microphone to record conversations. 
  • It currently employs ‘zero click’ attacks, which do not require any interaction on the part of the phone owner. 
  • It is used to exploit certain ‘zero day’ vulnerabilities found in operating systems — about which the manufacturers themselves are unaware. 
  • The Pegasus virus seeks what are termed as ‘root privileges’ — that enable communication with its controllers through an anonymised network of Internet addresses and servers and transit data.

Challenges

  • The linkage between sabotage and intrusive surveillance: Cyber Weapons carry untold capacity to distort systems and structures, civilian or military, and, most importantly, interfere with democratic processes, aggravate domestic divisions and, above all, unleash forces over which established institutions or even governments have little control. 
  • As more and more devices are connected to networks, the cyber threat is only bound to intensify, both in the short and the medium term. 
    • The possibilities for misuse are immense and involve far graver consequences to an individual, an establishment, or the nation. 
  • AI could in turn make all information warfare — including cyber related — almost impossible to detect, deflect or prevent, at least at the current stage of development of AI tools. 
  • Meanwhile, easy access to newer cyber espionage tools will add to the existing chaos. 

Way forward:

  • Dealing with ‘zero day’ vulnerabilities require far more thought and introspection than merely creating special firewalls or special phones that are ‘detached’ from the Internet. 
  • What is needed is a deeper understanding of not only cyber technologies, but also recognising the mindsets of those who employ spyware of the Pegasus variety, and those at the helm of companies such as the NSO. Short-term remedies are unlikely to achieve desired results.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) is often seen as a kind of panacea for many of the current problems and ills, but all advances in technology tend to be a double-edged sword. 
    • All this suggests that security in the era of ever-expanding cyberweapons could become an ever-receding horizon.

Dealing with the cyber threat, hence, deserves careful analysis and assessment. Meanwhile, we must be prepared for, and guard against, a new epoch of cyber threats, employing newer, state-of-the-art cyberweapons, which will further intensify cyber insecurity across the board. 

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-wings-of-pegasus-the-epoch-of-cyberweapons/article35616341.ece