Digital safety fears as India eyes cashless future

  • TECH
  • Tuesday, 17 Jan 2017

An Indian bank teller checks his phone as he walks past a poster advertising electronic payments at a Digital Wealth Fair in Mumbai on January 3, 2017. India is attempting to move towards a digital or cashless economy following the government's move in November 2016 to withdraw high-denomination 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes from circulation in a bid to tackle tax evasion. / AFP PHOTO / INDRANIL MUKHERJEE

As the Indian government urges millions to embrace digital payment systems, concerns over cybersecurity are growing due to a spate of high-profile hacking and cybersecurity incidents. 

Following his decision in November to demonetise high-value currency notes of 1,000 rupees (RM65) and 500 rupees (RM32) to curb corruption and illegal activities, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing for cashless transactions to promote more transparency. 

He launched BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money), an app for cashless transactions, and his government has announced a raft of incentives including discounts of up to 10% for the purchase of petrol, diesel and insurance products by card. 

Yet cybersecurity experts said going digital must go hand in hand with stronger legislation, more protection for consumers and more resources to fight cybercrimes. 

In November, 73 State Bank of India cardholders reported fraudulent withdrawals of around 3.9 million rupees (RM255,940) following a data breach at the bank's ATMs. 

The bank, according to the government, blocked 600,000 cards. 

This was preceded by the country's biggest cybersecurity breach last October in which multiple banks asked customers to change security codes for more than 3.25 million debit cards, including those on Visa and MasterCard platforms, amid concerns that the card data could have been stolen. 

"After demonetisation and cashless economy, cybersecurity is becoming even more relevant," said Pawan Duggal, a cyber-law advocate. 

"India is thoroughly unprepared to deal with cybersecurity because, number one, India does not have a dedicated cybersecurity law," he added. 

India has an Information Technology Act 2000 where the maximum punishment for cyber terrorism is life imprisonment while cybercrimes like hacking may be punished by up to three years' jail. 

"Various state and non-state actors across the world are increasingly watching India's progress and targeting Indian networks and government websites. It is a wake-up call to work consistently on cybersecurity," said Duggal. 

Cybercrimes have been on the rise in India, which has more than 400 million Internet users, and 25 million users are added every year. 

In 2015, 11,592 cybercrime cases were reported across India, compared with 453 in 2006, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. 

According to a Symantec report in 2015, India ranked third highest for ransomware attacks in Asia. In such attacks, hackers plant malicious software that blocks access to files until a sum of money is paid. 

"In recent times, Indian banks have been targeted, so there is a certain amount of concern in the minds of people. Is my data safe? From that point of view, India needs to ensure things are in place," said Dr Ajey Lele of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a Delhi-based think-tank. 

"A structure (to combat cybercrimes) is in place but, looking at recent attacks, it is an evolving threat. One has to stay vigilant," he said. 

Worries over online crimes have been reinforced by recent high-profile hacking cases. 

Hackers on Jan 1 defaced the official website of the National Security Guard, an Indian special forces unit, and left derogatory messages targeting Modi. 

The authorities suspect the hacking originated from Pakistan. 

This follows the hacking last month of the Twitter accounts of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and the party by a group called Legion. 

The government has acknowledged that much needs to be done to ensure digital security. 

Last Wednesday, Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad invited Google to join government efforts to boost cybersecurity systems. 

Last month, IBM launched a cybersecurity command centre in Bengaluru to offer security solutions to Indian companies while Cisco announced plans to open a new security operations centre in Pune. 

"The more digital India becomes, there would be challenges," said Prasad at an event. 

"We have taken a lot of initiatives, but there has to be greater strengthening of the IT walls," he said. — ANN

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