In December 2013, the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies (“Wassenaar Arrangement”) extended its reach to the cyber world. The extension seemed to signal a broad attack on export of many categories of cyber security software including commercially available penetration testing and network monitoring products, zero days and other computer exploits. Interestingly, these changes have emerged after media reports of U.S. government purchases of zero day computer exploits or vulnerabilities, i.e., security vulnerabilities previously unknown, by the US National Security Agency (NSA) for use by its hacking team.
Cyber security experts around the world and large companies like Google have raised a banner of revolt against the Wassennar changes and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS)’s proposals for the implementation of the Wassenaar changes. They have expressed serious concerns about the impact of these changes on discovery of new vulnerabilities that could pose a threat to the internet globally.
If anything, the general impression is that Wassenaar Changes and its implementation by the signatory countries would actually make the internet more dangerous to users around the world. Google has been quoted as saying that the rules “are dangerously broad and vague and would have a significant, negative impact on the open security research community. They would also hamper our ability to defend ourselves, our users and make the Web safer. It would be a disastrous outcome if an export regulation intended to make people more secure resulted in billions of users across the globe becoming persistently less secure.”
The fierce criticism and loud, public protest has had a temporary impact. The US Department of Commerce has now committed to drafting new rules to replace/amend the earlier draft.
It would be pertinent to note here that in response to the Wassenaar changes, VUPEN, a well known zero-day exploit firm (and also a supplier of exploits to the NSA), announced its decision to restrict exploit sales only to approved government agencies in approved countries
So what does all this mean for India? While the Wassenaar Arrangement might have worked in the physical world, will it work in the borderless cyber world? Will a country like Russia, a leading global supplier of cyber security software and tools implement rules to accommodate the Wassenaar changes, especially at a time when it is facing economic headwinds and under sanctions from the US and the EU? It does not seem to be in Russia’s interest at all, given its enormous strengths in the cyber security area and huge market for such products.
But India cannot afford to speculate on which way the wind will blow. The ongoing transformation of India into a Digital Economy implies the need for strong cyber security defences. Imagine a situation where a commercial or defence software is found to have vulnerabilities, whether accidental or deliberate, and the country lacks the tools to test for and mitigate such vulnerabilities? What if such vulnerabilities are discovered in software used in sectors such as Critical Infrastructure, Public Utilities, Financial Services, Health Information Systems? What if vulnerabilities are found in SCADA (industrial automation control systems) used by major industries and the energy sector?
Clearly, India needs to build its own cyber security defences and do it fast. Some expertise is available in the country, and needs to be complemented with global talent.
The Government, leading software companies, defence companies and major users need to invest liberally in funding and supporting talented cyber security professionals. The Government should support some aggression in sourcing relevant tools, technology and talent from wherever required in the world. Israel’s export of cyber security software now exceeds that of physical weapons systems, and there’s a lesson for India here in the form of a Military/Industrial/Cyber Security Professionals complex to meet India’s needs.
As is known, India has faced serious problems in the past with respect to imports of critical technologies in the areas of defence, space and the nuclear sector. In the context of cyber security, we now have advance warning about problems that are around the corner. It makes no sense to run into a wall all over again and as such, a proactive and immediate national response is called for.
Prasanna J, Founder of Cyber Security and Privacy Foundation.