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How Cyber Attacks in Pakistan Are A Challenge for Digital Future?

Cyber threat has globally evolved over the years for individuals, governments, and private businesses. There are several instances where billions of dollars mysteriously disappear or move into shady accounts, private pictures are exposed, confidential secrets are leaked, and critical public infrastructure like traffic lights get hacked. This happens because of weak cybersecurity and strong cyber attacks. The more the world becomes connected through the internet, the more measures it needs to take to curb the growing threat. Pakistan is also facing a growing threat of cyber attacks due to the increase in digitization. Recently, there have been several instances of attack from outside as well as inside, making the critics suggest a need for a robust strategy for cybersecurity. Developing countries like Pakistan which are trying hard to digitize the system are facing a greater challenge due to the issue of cybersecurity. An increase in cyber attacks that result in theft of valuable users’ data can shatter the confidence of people to switch to online systems

Recent Cyber Attacks in Pakistan

The usual threats to the cyber-space of Pakistan mostly come from India as per the reports. The neighbors often have an element of curiosity to learn about each other’s activities. However, when these neighbors are Pakistan and India, the curiosity quickly transforms into animosity. According to several claims by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR), India is actively involved in cyber attacks against Pakistan in collaboration with Israel.

The advantage of a cyber attack is that a perpetrator can cause national instability without even lifting a physical weapon. It can also damage the entire economy without touching the physical infrastructure of finance.

Recent years have seen many episodes of cyber rivalry between India and Pakistan. Unlike Pakistan, India has largely improved its offensive and defensive capabilities related to cyber warfare. However, neither country has carried out a large-scale attack yet. Only the frequency of small-scale attacks has increased. Most commonly there is internet vandalism to deface websites which are often used as a way to taunt one another.

Pakistan-based hackers allegedly targeted a power company in India to install a backdoor virus known as ReverseRat. It is a spyware that is typically used to execute arbitrary executables, perform file operations, terminate processes, capture screenshots, and upload data to a remote server. This attack was still miniature when compared to the attacks conducted by India.

Trageting the Private Data of Government Officials

In 2019, Indian hackers attacked the WhatsApp conversations of Pakistan officials for secret surveillance. Some entities in Pakistan claimed that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s phone was also targeted. The program infiltrated phones by making a missed call on the target’s WhatsApp number. It remotely activated the phone’s camera and microphone and provided access to the contact lists, messages, emails, and passwords. Reportedly they used a special Israeli malware called Pegasus developed by NSO Group. Facebook sued the NSO Group for assisting governments with cyber espionage against other nations.

Over 150 Personnel Hacked

In February 2021, alleged Indian hackers select-targeted more than 150 individuals in India, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. Reportedly, these people were linked to Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Pakistan Air Force, and Kashmir election officials.

FBR Website

The official website of Federal Board of Revenue was hacked on Independence Day 2021 by unknown hackers. Later it was reported that the hackers tried to sell the data of 1500+ computers for 26,000 USD online but Pakistani official denied it.

FBR told the media that no taxpayer data was compromised and only front end functionalities suffered the blow. As a precautionary measure, the FBR closed some servers to avoid any further damage. Taxpayers were unable to file any tax for a couple of days.

Mass Surveillance

In 2013, Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden mentioned Pakistan as well among the countries that are most targetted by the US National Security Agency for conducting surveillance.

K-Electric RansomWare Attack

Last year Karachi’s electricity provider, K-Electric faced a ransomware attack from a hacker group Netwalker. It affected the internet and billing services of the company. Hackers demanded 3.5 million USD in order to release the site from their hostage. After a week when K-Electric refused to negotiate with the hackers, they increased the ransom to 7 million USD and threatened to make the data public. K-Electric denied that such a hack happened but 8.5 GB of data containing customers’ names, addresses, CNICs, NTNs, credit cards, and bank accounts details were allegedly leaked on the Dark Web.

Attack on Banks

In 2018, a cyber attack caused heavy financial losses and enlisted complete data of over 8000 accounts on the Dark Web. According to reports, it was a coordinated attack on the customers of 22 Pakistani banks in which 20,000 debit cards were compromised. Hackers were able to make transactions on international ATMs after skimming the details of original cards.

Is Pakistan’s Cyber Space Capable of Sustaining Digitization?

Security has always been high on Pakistan’s national agenda but cybersecurity is surely lacking behind. In such a vulnerable cyber environment, the dream of digitization and revenue generation through tech platforms seems challenging. According to the 2020 report, Pakistan ranked on 79th spot out of 193 countries on Global Cybersecurity Index (GCI). The report said that Pakistan was lagging far behind in technical and organizational aspects. In 2017 it was at 67th rank and fell down 12 positions in 3 years.

One of the reasons was that Pakistan had one of the highest concentrations of malware-hosting sites. It also had the second-highest malware encounter rate at 27.48%. According to 2019, Pakistan was the number one country vulnerable to cyber attacks in the Asia pacific. It is understandably a negligent practice by a geopolitical strategic country plus the only Muslim state with nuclear technology.

The Asia Pacific is an ideal environment for cybercrimes to thrive. First, there is high internet connectivity with a low level of cyber awareness. Secondly, the massive rate of cross-border data transfers and finally, low to none transparency and cyber regulations.

All of it reflects the incorrect management of Pakistan’s cyberspace, the lack of relevant institutions, no security debates, and the exclusion of the public from security matters. These challenges will continue to hinder Pakistan’s progress as a digitally advanced country.

Critical Attacks Around the World

Cybercrimes happen all around the world using various tools like malware, ransomware, spyware, social engineering, and even devices like ATM skimmers. According to records these incidents have been significant as they involved high-tech companies and governments. The most prominent one perhaps was by Russia in 2008 during its invasion of Georgia. The world witnessed the first cyber-warfare where the online attack was in sync with the offline one. It was also the first war in Europe that happened in the 21st Century. Russia carried out intensive cyber attacks to disrupt the online infrastructure of Georgia and controlled its web traffic to deface the government.

Another example is the famous cyber attack by the US against Iran in 2009. The American government created a digital worm “Stuxnet” with the help of Israel for disabling Iran’s nuclear plant centrifuges that are used to weaponize enriched uranium. According to reports, the worm destroyed about 980 centrifuges and decreased 30% of Iran’s nuclear efficiency.

Cyber threat is often considered a military domain as an addition to others i.e., land, air, and sea. Critics opine that cyber-warfare is like another equalizer for shifting power balances just like nuclear technology was in the 50s. In that essence, Pakistan has been lagging far behind the normal applications of cyber technology.

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