Covid-19: Impacts on Pakistan’s Cyber Security

Live Updates: COVID-19 Cybersecurity Alerts | Blog

by Basma Khalil 28 June 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic still remains the most dominant factor affecting global scenario. Neither the superpowers nor the developing countries are spared of its curse. Whole world is in a crisis like situation whether it’s a super power or state like Pakistan, which has already been facing external threat and internal instabilities. Like every other state in the world to continue the routine activities, Pakistan has shifted its workload to online databases. The shift to online forum has increased dependence on internet making the country equally concerned about safeguarding its cyber security  – as safeguards and security systems of our cyber infrastructure are not so protective keeping in view the dynamic nature of cyber security. The government has recently launched its Digital Pakistan Policy which has acquired renewed significance in the current pandemic. Although it is a good initiative to facilitate the public but there are some loopholes that need to be addressed as Covid crisis seems to have prolonged indefinitely. There is a need to adopt effective measures so the weakness in the system can be effectively resolved on priority bases.

The current crisis situation has adversely impacted the educational hubs and other academic institutes which almost stopped functioning for a while. The government encourages the online classes and examination system. This not only helped schools and universities, but the research thinks thanks and other organizations were also able to resume their functions by utilizing online forum. Here the challenge for a country like Pakistan is the provision of fast and smooth internet connections in all the districts of country.  But now days, students of KPK, Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and even in some districts of Punjab are facing connectivity issues. Students have raised their voices through social media forum and student Unions. Other than smooth provision of internet facility, state need to have a robust independent network security systems during Covid-19 because of more dependence on computer and internet networks and keep up with the rapidly changing cyber technologies. Dependence on foreign developed applications like ‘Zoom’ can be harmful in the longer term for privacy. Recently, an intrusion occurred during the webinar of Institute of   Strategic Studies (ISSI) due to non-encrypted internet connection. In encrypted connection the risk factor still exists as the de-encrypted data is retained with the developers who can use it for their self-interest to harm the security of any state especially the states like Pakistan which is still in the nascent stage of acquiring and developing advanced cyber technology related tools. Another such incident occurred wherein the official website of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission was attacked by scammers but later on it was clarified by HEC that it was just that someone just took the screenshot and make changes in its HTML coding and uploads it , which seems to be , that website is hacked . Although this scam   carried out in anger by internal rudiments was not so harmful and serious, but still it’s an alarm to be prepared for the rising threats and technological challenges that could be hazardous. It is, thus a big question mark on the Pakistan’s preparedness to face such challenges in future that could be serious in their nature. 

Covid-19 has quarantined the people inside their homes; activities are limited to internet and computers. This has provided the cyber-criminals with the opportunity to breach the privacy and use it for their own interests. During this quarantine, people to kill boredom are downloading different kind of applications in their mobile phones and PCs and agreeing to give that application access to mobile data. This can be harmful and data of people can be used to cause damage to personal as well as national security, because this is an era of information warfare and any entity or state can take advantage of the data provided to them unknowingly. Cyber criminals and hackers whether they are from within the state or outside; sponsored by rival states can easily exploit the loophole of the existing cyber infrastructure as previously before Covid-19 crises, Pakistani infrastructure has been attacked several times which includes the banking sector as well as armed forces infrastructure. For instance cyber-attacks carried out by Indian organization   Rattle snake on Navy’s Public relations Branch tried to manipulate the statements released by Public relations Branch. Above mentioned attacks carried out by India before Covid-19 were very alarming and threatening to national security. One can gauge the level of threat during Covid-19 when the whole country is working online. There have been efforts to digitize all the sectors of Pakistan with which whole data will be shifted to data clouds. This may lead to losing control over the data because once data is placed online, it will be available to everyone who can then penetrate easily and will be hazardous for national security.

To address the threats to data and preserve its national security, Pakistan needs a workable solution to protect its servers to store such huge bulks of national data. It also needs to maintain backup of the data to be on safer side. It needs to develop its own strong firewall security software against online viruses and Trojan horses to protect the data rather than being dependent on borrowed technologies and software because dependency in such domains in the longer runs can be harmful. So keeping in view the upcoming technological era and Covid-19 has to some added acceleration in the process of doing so. At this very moment, Pakistan needs to have a formalized national cyber security policy as an important pillar of national security.

 The writer is working as Research Affiliate at Strategic Vision Institute Islamabad, a non-partisan based out of Islamabad.

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