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Digital safety fears as India eyes cashless future

Picture: Roadside stalls in Mumbai displaying signs that they accept digital payments via Paytm, a digital-wallet company. Following his decision in November to demonetise high-value currency notes of 1,000 rupees and 500 rupees to curb corruption and illegal activities, PM Modi has been pushing for cashless transactions to promote more transparency.

Call for stiffer laws, better protection for consumers amid spate of high-profile hackings, cyber-security breaches

New Delhi, January 16, 2017: As the Indian government urges millions to embrace digital payment systems, concerns over cyber security are growing due to a spate of high-profile hacking and cyber- security incidents.

Following his decision in November to demonetise high-value currency notes of 1,000 rupees (S$21) and 500 rupees 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 per cent for the purchase of petrol, diesel and insurance products by card.

Yet cyber-security 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 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 cyber-security 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, cyber security is becoming even more relevant,” said Mr Pawan Duggal, a cyber-law advocate.

“India is thoroughly unprepared to deal with cyber security because, number one, India does not have a dedicated cyber-security 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 cyber security,” said Mr 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 Mr 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 cyber- security systems.

Last month, IBM launched a cyber-security 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 Mr Prasad at an event.

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