Centre for Internet & Society

Geeks seize the chance to help the government, defence forces and banks draw up fences against tech crimes.

The article by Peerzada Abrar was published in the Hindu on November 20, 2016.

Saket Modi loves long flights. The 26-year-old hacker likes to do most of his reasoning while criss-crossing the world. It was on one such flight from the United States to India that the co-founder of cybersecurity start-up Lucideus Tech read about India's largest data security breaches. While surfing the in-flight Internet he came to know that the security of about 3.2 million debit cards had been compromised.

“I was not surprised but I started thinking about how it would have happened. What was the ‘exploit’ used, how long was it there,” said Mr. Modi. Soon after reaching New Delhi, he received multiple requests from several banks and organisations to protect them from the hacking incident, which is just one of the thousands of cybercrimes that the country is facing.

In India, there has been a surge of approximately 350 per cent of cybercrime cases registered under the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 from the year of 2011 to 2014, according to a joint study by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) has also reported a surge in the number of incidents handled by it, with close to 50,000 security incidents in 2015, noted the Assocham-PwC joint study.

Ethical hackers

Mr. Modi is among a new breed of ethical hackers-turned-entrepreneurs who are betting big on this opportunity. An ethical hacker is a computer expert who hacks into a computer network on the behalf of its owner in order to test or evaluate its security, rather than with malicious or criminal intent.

“You cannot live in a world where you think that you can't be hacked. It doesn’t matter who you are,” said Mr. Modi who cofounded Lucideus four years ago. The company clocked revenues of Rs.4 crore in the last fiscal. This compares with the Rs.2.5 lakh revenues in the first year. The New Delhi-based firm now counts Reserve Bank of India, Ministry of Defence and Standard Chartered among its top clients.

Mr. Modi, who is also a pianist, discovered his skills for hacking into secure computer systems while preparing for his board exams. He hacked into his school computer and stole the chemistry question paper, after realising that he would not be able to clear the test conducted by his school. However, a guilty conscience compelled him to confess to his teacher who permitted him to still take the test. The incident transformed him to use his skills to protect and not misuse them. This year, Lucideus was hired by National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) along with other information security specialists to protect its most ambitious project, the Unified Payment Interface (UPI) platform, from cyber attacks. UPI aims to bring digital banking to 1.2 billion people in the country. Lucideus has a team of 70 people mostly fresh college graduates who do hacking with authorisation.

“The reason behind choosing Lucideus was their young, energetic and knowledgeable team," said Bhavesh Lakhani, chief technology officer of DSP BlackRock, one of the premier asset management companies. Mr. Lakhani said that India is currently the epicentre of financial and technological advancements which make it a probable target of cyber-attacks.

Hacking lifeline

Indeed, a new breed of cyber criminals has emerged, whose main aim is not just financial gains but also cause disruption and chaos to businesses in particular and the nation at large, according to the Assocham-PwC study. Attackers can gain control of vital systems such as nuclear plants, railways, transportation and hospitals. This can subsequently lead to dire consequences such as power failures, water pollution or floods, disruption of transportation systems and loss of life, noted the study.

“The hacker doesn’t care whether he is attacking an Indian or a U.S. company. It is bread and butter for him and he wants to eat it wherever he gets it from,” said Trishneet Arora, a 22-year-old ethical hacker. In an office tucked away in Mohali, a commercial hub lying adjacent to the city of Chandigarh in Punjab, Mr.Arora fights these cyberattacks on a daily basis to protect his clients. His start-up TAC Security provides an emergency service to customers who have been hacked or are anticipating a cyberattack. It alerted a hospital in the U.S. after detecting vulnerabilities in their computer network.

Mr.Arora said that the hackers could have easily shut down the intensive care unit which was connected to it and remotely killed the patients. TAC said the data server of a bank in the UAE containing critical information got hacked recently. The bank also lost access to the server. TAC said that it not only helped the organisation to get back access to the server but also traced the hacker’s identity.

A school drop out, Mr.Arora founded TAC three years ago. But he initially found it tough to convince enterprises about his special skills. “I was a backbencher in the classroom and not good in studies, but I loved playing video games and hacking,” he said. He conducted workshops on hacking and provided his expertise to law enforcement agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and various State police departments. His firm now provides its services to customers such as Reliance Industries, dairy brand Amul and tractor manufacturer Sonalika.

“We were surprised by their expertise,” said R.S. Sodhi, managing director of Amul. “We wanted to be sure that the company’s vital IT infrastructure is in the right hands – the big question was, ‘Who can that be?’ In TAC, we found that team.”

TAC expects to cross revenues of $5 million (Rs.33 crore) and employ about 100 ethical hackers by next year.

Budget woes

Security watchers such as Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bengaluru-based think tank Centre for Internet and Society said that India’s cybersecurity budget is woefully inadequate when compared to the spending by other countries. In 2014-15, the government doubled its cybersecurity budget by earmarking Rs.116 crore. “We require a budget of $1 billion per annum or every two years to build the cybersecurity infrastructure. The current cyber security policy has no such budget,” said Mr. Abraham.

According to Data Security Council of India (DSCI), India's cybersecurity market is expected to grow nine-fold to $35 billion by 2025, from about $4 billion. This would mainly be driven by an ecosystem to promote the growth of indigenous security product and services start-up companies.

The Cyber Security Task Force (CSTF) set up by DSCI and industry body Nasscom expects to create a trained base of one million certified and skilled cybersecurity professionals. It also aims to build more than 100 successful security product companies from India. Investors who normally focus on e-commerce ventures or public markets are now taking note of this opportunity and are betting on such ventures. Amit Choudhary, director, MotilalOswal Private Equity and an investor in Lucideus, said he saw tremendous opportunity in the cybersecurity market as hackers are shifting their focus from developed countries to emerging countries like India.

“There is a huge opportunity. The recent security breaches of a few Indian banks are an example,” said Vijay Kedia an ace stock picker and an investor in TAC Security. He said that organisations are still unaware of the widespread damage that can be caused by hackers. “The next war will be a ‘cyberwar’,” he said.