India’s National Cyber Security Policy in Review

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India’s National Cyber Security Policy in Review

Earlier this month, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology released India’s first National Cyber Security Policy. Years in the making, the Policy sets high goals for cyber security in India and covers a wide range of topics, from institutional frameworks for emergency response to indigenous capacity building.

What the Policy achieves in breadth, however, it often lacks in depth. Vague, cursory language ultimately prevents the Policy from being anything more than an aspirational document. In order to translate the Policy’s goals into an effective strategy, a great deal more specificity and precision will be required.

The Scope of National Cyber Security

Where such precision is most required is in definitions. Having no legal force itself, the Policy arguably does not require the sort of legal precision one would expect of an act of Parliament, for example. Yet the Policy deals in terms plagued with ambiguity, cyber security not the least among them. In forgoing basic definitions, the Policy fails to define its own scope, and as a result it proves remarkably broad and arguably unfocused.

The Policy’s preamble comes close to defining cyber security in paragraph 5 when it refers to “cyber related incident[s] of national significance” involving “extensive damage to the information infrastructure or key assets…[threatening] lives, economy and national security.” Here at least is a picture of cyber security on a national scale, a picture which would be quite familiar to Western policymakers: computer security practices “fundamental to both protecting government secrets and enabling national defence, in addition to protecting the critical infrastructures that permeate and drive the 21st century global economy.”[*] The paragraph 5 definition of sorts becomes much broader, however, when individuals and businesses are introduced, and threats like identity theft are brought into the mix.

Here the Policy runs afoul of a common pitfall: conflating threats to the state or society writ large (e.g. cyber warfare, cyber espionage, cyber terrorism) with threats to businesses and individuals (e.g. fraud, identity theft). Although both sets of threats may be fairly described as cyber security threats, only the former is worthy of the term national cyber security. The latter would be better characterized as cyber crime. The distinction is an important one, lest cyber crime be “securitized,” or elevated to an issue of national security. National cyber security has already provided the justification for the much decried Central Monitoring System (CMS). Expanding the range of threats subsumed under this rubric may provide a pretext for further surveillance efforts on a national scale.

Apart from mission creep, this vague and overly broad conception of national cyber security risks overwhelming an as yet underdeveloped system with more responsibilities than it may be able to handle. Where cyber crime might be left up to the police, its inclusion alongside true national-level cyber security threats in the Policy suggests it may be handled by the new “nodal agency” mentioned in section IV. Thus clearer definitions would not only provide the Policy with a more focused scope, but they would also make for a more efficient distribution of already scarce resources.

What It Get Right

Definitions aside, the Policy actually gets a lot of things right — at least as an aspirational document. It certainly covers plenty of ground, mentioning everything from information sharing to procedures for risk assessment / risk management to supply chain security to capacity building. It is a sketch of what could be a very comprehensive national cyber security strategy, but without more specifics, it is unlikely to reach its full potential. Overall, the Policy is much of what one might expect from a first draft, but certain elements stand out as worthy of special consideration.

First and foremost, the Policy should be commended for its commitment to “[safeguarding] privacy of citizen’s data” (sic). Privacy is an integral component of cyber security, and in fact other states’ cyber security strategies have entire segments devoted specifically to privacy. India’s Policy stands to be more specific as to the scope of these safeguards, however. Does the Policy aim primarily to safeguard data from criminals? Foreign agents? Could it go so far as to protect user data even from its own agents? Indeed this commitment to privacy would appear at odds with the recently unveiled CMS. Rather than merely paying lip service to the concept of online privacy, the government would be well advised to pass legislation protecting citizens’ privacy and to use such legislation as the foundation for a more robust cyber security strategy.

The Policy also does well to advocate “fiscal schemes and incentives to encourage entities to install, strengthen and upgrade information infrastructure with respect to cyber security.” Though some have argued that such regulation would impose inordinate costs on private businesses, anyone with a cursory understanding of computer networks and microeconomics could tell you that “externalities in cybersecurity are so great that even the freest free market would fail”—to quote expert Bruce Schneier. In less academic terms, a network is only as strong as its weakest link. While it is true that many larger enterprises take cyber security quite seriously, small and medium-sized businesses either lack immediate incentives to invest in security (e.g. no shareholders to answer to) or more often lack the basic resources to do so. Some form of government transfer for cyber security related investments could thus go a long way toward shoring up the country’s overall security.

The Policy also “[encourages] wider usage of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) within Government for trusted communication and transactions.” It is surprising, however, that the Policy does not mandate the usage of PKI. In general, the document provides relatively few details on what specific security practices operators of Critical Information Infrastructure (CII) can or should implement.

Where It Goes Wrong

One troubling aspect of the Policy is its ambiguous language with respect to acquisition policies and supply chain security in general. The Policy, for example, aims to “[mandate] security practices related to the design, acquisition, development, use and operation of information resources” (emphasis added). Indeed, section VI, subsection A, paragraph 8 makes reference to the “procurement of indigenously manufactured ICT products,” presumably to the exclusion of imported goods. Although supply chain security must inevitably factor into overall cyber security concerns, such restrictive acquisition policies could not only deprive critical systems of potentially higher-quality alternatives but—depending on the implementation of these policies—could also sharpen the vulnerabilities of these systems.

Not only do these preferential acquisition policies risk mandating lower quality products, but it is unlikely they will be able to keep pace with the rapid pace of innovation in information technology. The United States provides a cautionary tale. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), tasked with producing cyber security standards for operators of critical infrastructure, made its first update to a 2005 set of standards earlier this year. Other regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) move at a marginally faster pace yet nevertheless are delayed by bureaucratic processes. FERC has already moved to implement Version 5 of its Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) standards, nearly a year before the deadline for Version 4 compliance. The need for new standards thus outpaces the ability of industry to effectively implement them.

Fortunately, U.S. cyber security regulation has so-far been technology-neutral. Operators of Critical Information Infrastructure are required only to ensure certain functionalities and not to procure their hardware and software from any particular supplier. This principle ensures competition and thus security, allowing CII operators to take advantage of the most cutting-edge technologies regardless of name, model, etc. Technology neutrality does of course raise risks, such as those emphasized by the Government of India regarding Huawei and ZTE in 2010. Risk assessment must, however, remain focused on the technology in question and avoid politicization. India’s cyber security policy can be technology neutral as long as it follows one additional principle: trust but verify.

Verification may be facilitated by the use of free and open-source software (FOSS). FOSS provides security through transparency as opposed to security through obscurity and thus enables more agile responses to security responses. Users can identify and patch bugs themselves, or otherwise take advantage of the broader user community for such fixes. Thus open-source software promotes security in much the same way that competitive markets do: by accepting a wide range of inputs.

Despite the virtues of FOSS, there are plenty of good reasons to run proprietary software, e.g. fitness for purpose, cost, and track record. Proprietary software makes verification somewhat more complicated but not impossible. Source code escrow agreements have recently gained some traction as a verification measure for proprietary software, even with companies like Huawei and ZTE. In 2010, the infamous Chinese telecommunications giants persuaded the Indian government to lift its earlier ban on their products by concluding just such an agreement.  Clearly trust but verify is imminently practicable, and thus technology neutrality.

What’s Missing

Level of detail aside, what is most conspicuously absent from the new Policy is any framework for institutional cooperation beyond 1) the designation of CERT-In “as a Nodal Agency for coordination of all efforts for cyber security emergency response and crisis management” and 2) the designation of the “National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre (NCIIPC) to function as the nodal agency for critical information infrastructure protection in the country.” The Policy mentions additionally “a National nodal agency to coordinate all matters related to cyber security in the country, with clearly defined roles & responsibilities.” Some clarity with regard to roles and responsibilities would certainly be in order. Even among these three agencies—assuming they are all distinct—it is unclear who is to be responsible for what.

More confusing still is the number of other pre-existing entities with cyber security responsibilities, in particular the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), which in an earlier draft of the Policy was to have authority over the NCIIPC. The Ministry of Defense likewise has bolstered its cyber security and cyber warfare capabilities in recent years. Is it appropriate for these to play a role in securing civilian CII? Finally, the already infamous Central Monitoring System, justified predominantly on the very basis of cyber security, receives no mention at all. For a government that is only now releasing its first cyber security policy, India has developed a fairly robust set of institutions around this issue. It is disappointing that the Policy does not more fully address questions of roles and responsibilities among government entities.

Not only is there a lack of coordination among government cyber security entities, but there is no mention of how the public and private sectors are to cooperate on cyber security information—other than oblique references to “public-private partnerships.” Certainly there is a need for information sharing, which is currently facilitated in part by the sector-level CERTS. More interesting, however, is the question of liability for high-impact cyber attacks. To whom are private CII operators accountable in the event of disruptive cyber attacks on their systems? This legal ambiguity must necessarily be resolved in conjunction with the “fiscal schemes and incentives” also alluded to in the Policy in order to motivate strong cyber security practices among all CII operators and the public more broadly.

Next Steps

India’s inaugural National Cyber Security Policy is by and large a step in the right direction. It covers many of the most pressing issues in national cyber security and lays out a number of ambitious goals, ranging from capacity building to robust public-private partnerships. To realize these goals, the government will need a much more detailed roadmap.

Firstly, the extent of the government’s proposed privacy safeguards must be clarified and ideally backed by a separate piece of privacy legislation. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” When it comes to cyberspace, the Indian people must demand both liberty and safety.

Secondly, the government should avoid overly preferential acquisition policies and allow risk assessments to be technologically rather than politically driven. Procurement should moreover be technology-neutral. Open source software and source code escrow agreements can facilitate the verification measures that make technology neutrality work.

Finally, to translate this policy into a sound strategy will necessarily require that India’s various means be directed toward specific ends. The Policy hints at organizational mapping with references to CERT-In and the NCIIPC, but the roles and responsibilities of other government agencies as well as the private sector remain underdetermined. Greater clarity on these points would improve inter-agency and public-private cooperation—and thus, one hopes, security—significantly.

Not only is there a lack of coordination among government cyber security entities, but there is no mention of how the public and private sectors are to cooperate on cyber security information—other than oblique references to “public-private partnerships.” Certainly there is a need for information sharing, which is currently facilitated in part by the sector-level CERTS. More interesting, however, is the question of liability for high-impact cyber attacks. To whom are private CII operators accountable in the event of disruptive cyber attacks on their systems? This legal ambiguity must necessarily be resolved in conjunction with the “fiscal schemes and incentives” also alluded to in the Policy in order to motivate strong cyber security practices among all CII operators and the public more broadly.

[*]. Melissa E. Hathaway and Alexander Klimburg, “Preliminary Considerations: On National Cyber Security” in National Cyber Security Framework Manual, ed. Alexander Klimburg, (Tallinn, Estonia: Nato Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, 2012), 13

Source: http://cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/indias-national-cyber-security-policy-in-review

By | 2016-11-20T12:16:58+00:00 July 20th, 2016|Blog|Comments Off on India’s National Cyber Security Policy in Review