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How Chinese cyber-attacks, Mumbai blackout depict a new era of low-cost high-tech warfare

In episode 694 of #CutTheClutter, Shekhar Gupta highlights what the repeated attempts by Chinese hackers targeting Indian power system and now vaccine-making firms mean.

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New Delhi: As investigations are underway to find out whether Chinese hackers caused last year’s Mumbai blackout, ThePrint’s Editor-in–Chief Shekhar Gupta tells us why India should be alert about the new determinants of national power, in episode 694 of ‘Cut the Clutter’.

New York Times report has suggested that the Chinese bombarded the Indian power system with malware after the Galwan Valley clashes in June 2020. This information came from a cyber security company called Recorded Future. The report mentions that a hacker group called ‘RedEcho’, backed by the Chinese state, was behind this attack. The Power Systems Corporation Limited, National Thermal Power Corporation Limited, National Load Despatch Centre (NLDC), RLDCs and SLDCs, Delhi State Load Despatch Centre, and Kudgi Power Plant in Karnataka were among those targeted.

“Even though the NYT story is also not confirming that the attack was caused by the Chinese hackers, but the assumption is based on sufficient circumstantial evidence because from October till November, massive Chinese transmission of malware was seen towards Indian entities”, said Gupta.

However, no one is ready to say this on record because it will really mess up the India-China situation which has just calmed down with talks between Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, noted Gupta. “But if the Chinese did it, which it looks like that they did, then this was in the nature of firing a shot across the bow”, he added.

The Chinese showed what they could do with the malware they had transmitted to Indian power distribution systems, and indicated that if they could do it to our commercial capital for an hour, they could do it with the entire country, Gupta said.

Also read: ‘It was sabotage’ — Maharashtra energy minister says cyberattack caused Mumbai power outage

Cyber weapons

From a strategic point of view, it is now very difficult for countries to fight old-fashioned wars which involve casualties because even if you win the war, you still suffer losses. Even though China accepted four casualties in the Ladakh stand-off last June, it caused an uproar on its social media websites. Therefore, cyber weapons, which are low cost and give plausible deniability, are being preferred. Even the Russians infiltrated a lot of American systems with their malware, argued Gupta.

The key lesson from this is that modern wars will be not be fought just on borders or the line of control, they will be fought anywhere — the whole world is your battlefield. The warfare has now moved to the next generation. Increasingly, bigger powers will avoid having to fight physical wars which send bodies home.

The Recorded Future report also says that the Chinese carried out a coordinated attack on a bunch of load despatch centres, which manage the load where there are shortages. More data has come out which also shows that India was not entirely innocent, and it is possible that the Indian side may have provoked it. Indian hackers, backed by state agencies, targeted Chinese health infrastructure in Wuhan in February 2020, as per the report.

Also read: China, Russia & North Korea hackers target AIIMS, SII, Patanjali for Covid data — report

Once the border tensions began, Recorded Future picked up 40,300 hack attacks which were mostly traced to two China-based domain entities. The targets were power plants, the power sector and petroleum refineries.

The power ministry has said that they noted another attempt in February but that failed. It also said that the Power System Operation Corporation Limited (POSOCO) was not affected and was functioning alright. Even as this was going on, Reuters published a story that said that Chinese hackers targeted Indian vaccine makers — Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech — based on research done by a Singapore-Tokyo based security firm.

“Security threats and warfare between countries are no longer the domain of only uniform armed forces. Today, cyber warriors, at very little risk to themselves, can cause bigger havoc than the rest,’’ Gupta concluded.

Watch the full CTC episode here:

Also read: No clear link to blame Mumbai outage on cyber sabotage, Maharashtra report says


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