Cyber Intelligence for National Security

Published On: August 13, 2021 07:10 AM NPT By: GP Acharya

Learning from the past failures in political, diplomatic and security intelligence, Nepal needs to take pragmatic steps to upgrade its intelligence mechanisms.

The tech and cyber world have been outraged this week due to the unethical software hacking and massive data leak by the use of spyware. Various international media including The Guardian, The Washington Post and Reuters among others reported that spyware was used as part of cyber surveillance in many countries that hack hundreds of smartphones belonging to numerous heads of states, heads of government, government officials, politicians, diplomats and ambassadors, judiciary and media persons, and human rights activists among others around the world.

Le Monde (French Newspaper) reported that more than 50,000 phone numbers are on potential targets in several countries. Numerous heads of states, heads of governments and government officials of different countries including the King of Morocco; and Prime Ministers of Morocco, Egypt, and Pakistan are on the target list, stated The Washington Post. Le Monde further reported that several Delhi-based diplomats and Ambassadors including the Nepalese Ambassador are on the potential targets. “The mobile numbers of Imran Khan (Prime Minister of Pakistan) and several of his ambassadors in India appear on the list as potential targets. Dozens of other Delhi-based diplomats and ambassadors are included, from Iran, Afghanistan, China, Nepal and Saudi Arabia”, stated Le Monde.

The spyware called ‘Pegasus’ is reportedly licensed by NSO Group, an Israel based company. Once this malware infects Android devices and smartphones it actively extract messages, photos and emails from that device; record calls; and secretly activate camera or microphone, and read the contents of encrypted messaging apps such asWhatsApp, Telegram and Signal, claimed the sources. The users of smartphones do not know that their device is whether infected by Pegasus, even the phone number already get register in the data. It is said that the NSO Group is liable for selling that spyware only to the governments such that government’s intelligence and legal agencies use it against crime and terrorism. Instead, it is used to attack government agencies, head of states, head of governments, diplomats and ambassadors, and other government and public officials. It’s a huge concern that high ranking government officials and ambassadors are being conspired. It may further raise a huge gap of trust in country to country and government to government relations, if the governments themselves are involved in hatching such a conspiracy concern on other countries. It’s a crucial threat to humanity and sovereign human dignity as well as to the bilateral relations between the countries. More importantly, it’s a grave signal of threat on national security of the conspired countries.

Billions of people use mobile phones as primary computing devices and many depend on social media as a source of information worldwide, today. Data shows that more than 5.27 billion people use mobile phones worldwide, which is 67.03 percent of world’s total population, out of which nearly 3.8 billion use smartphones globally, which is 48.33 percent of the global population. By 2023, the worldwide mobile users are likely to cross 7.33 billion, predicted statista.According to Global System for Mobile communications Association (GSMA, 2021) there are more than 10.38 billion mobile connections including cellular Internet of Things (IoT) worldwide. There are more than 4.72 billion internet users, which is nearly 60 percent of the world’s total population; while 4.33 billion use social media, which is more than 55 percent of the global population. The average internet penetration is 59.5 percent globally, while it is 96 percent in Northern Europe (GSMA real-time intelligence data as of January 2021).

In Nepal, there are 14.18 million internet users, which is 56 percent of the total population; more than 13 million people use social media, which is 44.2 percent of the total population; and there are 38.61 million mobile connections, which is 131.3 percent of the total population of Nepal (As of January 2021). The mobile subscription is more than 1.3 times of the total population in the country. The Internet and social media have been a public platform where large amounts of public data that influence public policy, decision making, politics, diplomacy, military, research, intellectual property, and finance are shared. The crucial task to every entity- government, private and public- is to manage, monitor and secure these digital data, while massive amounts of data are being assembled and exploited by various state and non-state actors. Due to the poor digital infrastructures in banks, power-grids, telecom and airports, Nepal has frequently witnessed critical cyber security threats. This has been an emerging challenge for Nepal’s national security.

Amid the higher possibility of cyber-battle between the two populous and giant economic rivals- India and China , Nepal needs to get stronger and better cyber security preparedness in advance such that it would help mitigate the potential threats in cyberspace as well as to overcome the security challenges- both digital and physical- in border. The government needs to think in advance to establish a dedicated cyber security center. Comprehending the geo-location, geo-political proximity and dependency on others, Nepal needs to march ahead into the sphere of AI and Big Data. Data and technological sovereignty will be the key aspects in determining power capability and wealth for Nepal, while it can potentially gain power by a ‘wider spectrum of technological capabilities based on digitization’.

The Global Cyber Security Index (GCSI) 2020 shows that Nepal is at the 94th position in global ranking out of 182 countries, and it ranks at 17 out of 37 countries in Asia Pacific Region. While in 2018, Nepal was at 109th position in global ranking, and it ranked at 20 in Asia Pacific Region.

The GCSI is assessed based on the country's engagement in the five key measures- Legal, Technical, Organizational, Capacity Development, and Cooperation. This shows Nepal has significantly progressed in the Cyber Security sphere in the recent years than in the past. Nevertheless, the rising index alone may not bring security to the country like Nepal. Nepal has to be pragmatic enough in devising strategic and intelligence policies, and has to foster partnership with concerned security agencies, ICT providers, industry, academics and civilians for a sustainable security situation. 

The various legislative policies regarding big data, data protection, privacy, intellectual property, cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism among others need to be revised and updated based on the contemporary needs of the society and nation. National security policy however has to be pragmatically shifted in developing a resilient national cyber security architecture.

Learning from the past failures on political,diplomatic and security intelligence as well as internal weaknesses, power conflict (within) and hindrances in various junctures of history, Nepal needs to take pragmatic steps in upgrading the intelligence mechanisms. For this,Nepal needs to invest rationally on intelligence and develop a sound intelligence culture as part of a soft security strategy. Advanced and updated technology needs to be used to gather information from the political sphere around the world. Improved communication systems and corresponding data security are essential for countries like Nepal. Technically, an advanced intelligence unit needs to be set up such that it would provide time-sensitive data on a Real-Time basis, which will enable Nepal to enhance national security. 

(GP Acharya is a researcher and analyst.)

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