In wake of mass panic, India blames Pakistan-backed cyber attack

India charges that websites in Pakistan engaged in cyber warfare because they promoted rumors that caused thousands of ethnic minorities to flee the southern Indian city of Bangalore.

By , Correspondent

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    People from India's northeastern states crowd a railway station after disembarking a train from the southern Indian city of Bangalore on Monday, Aug. 20. Indian authorities have accused websites in Pakistan of spreading false rumors that caused thousands of people from India's remote northeast to panic and flee southern and western India.
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Indian authorities have accused Pakistan of sponsoring a cyber attack against India, causing the panicked exodus of thousands of ethnic minorities from southern India last week.

More than 35,000 people working and studying in southern and western Indian cities jammed train stations for about a week as they tried to flee in response to text-message warnings said to be from Indian Muslims angered at recent ethnic clashes in the northeast.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters on Sunday that his counterpart in India, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, complained to him about the recent cyber attack, claiming that investigators within India discovered that websites within Pakistan spread false rumors through doctored photos.

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Pakistan's government denies any involvement. Some cybersecurity experts in Pakistan, however, say they have seen similar cyber attacks from groups backed by government and intelligence agencies before, and that those entities may be behind this one.

“Without the traffic data analysis, it will be hard to point any fingers, but as we saw in the case of doctored images spread on the Internet by religious organizations in Pakistan to exaggerate victimization of Muslims in Myanmar, it is very likely that the cyber attack in India could have links in Pakistan,” says Shahzad Ahmed, who is the country director in Pakistan for Bytes for All, an international Internet rights group that monitors cyber activities in the region.

“There is ongoing cyber warfare on both sides of the border," says Mr. Ahmed. "And this particular incident is an act of terror. It spread fear among people.”

According to Abdullah Saad, a cyber security expert based in Islamabad, these terror campaigns are socially engineered with an agenda, and they are becoming more common on both sides of the border.

“The cyber forces in Pakistan are using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media websites to do propaganda warfare. For example, every time a website is hacked, they leave a political message, which clearly shows the intent behind such defacement,” Mr. Saad says.

Dates to early 2000s

Saad, who has run an Internet consultancy company for almost a decade, says these types of cyber attacks came to light in the early 2000s, when hackers from both sides started defacing government websites.

“There are hypernationalists in Pakistan and India who want to claim superiority in the cyber world. They are usually young IT experts, but they cannot exist without help by elements in the state. And that is why they are becoming more and more sophisticated,” he says.

Religious political parties like Jamat-e-Islami, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, Jamat-ud-Dawa – which have been in the parliament and at times have had ties with the military establishment in Pakistan – all advocate against friendly ties with India and all maintain an online presence with dedicated cyber wings. The presence of such groups online is increasing, says Ahmad, the head of Bytes for All.

There is no evidence to support whether [those organizations] are behind such attacks, but the Internet is a world of anonymity,” he says.

On the other hand, Saad says that when the Mumbai attacks happened in 2008 (the Indian government blamed Jamat-ud-Dawa), the sophistication of the terrorists in using GPS services to locate targets and videotaping the attack showed the extent of IT knowledge these groups have.

“Do not underestimate them. They are fully equipped with digital technology now,” he adds.

But is it state sponsored?

Analysts say it is possible such activity is state sponsored, but that it is difficult to prove.

According to experts in the Pakistani cyber world, Pakistani and Indian intelligence agencies maintain cyber sections in the name of national security and analysis.

One source, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject, says he knows of efforts by such a cyber cell backed by a federal agency in Pakistan, which tried to group hackers together and use their expertise in launching and blocking cyber attacks.

“They are usually young individuals who were tasked with cyber warfare, but it [was] dismantled after awhile since the government agency failed to fulfill financial commitments. Also, some of the hackers in this group were later identified, which landed them in trouble,’ the source says.

It’s common for young hackers to target India on Pakistan’s independence day, Aug. 14, and then for India’s hackers to retaliate the following day, when it’s India’s Independence day, says Aamir Attaa, manager of Propakistani.com, a blog dedicated to discussing current affairs in Pakistan.

Pakistan Cyber Army and Cyber Army India both have some 10,000 fans on their respective Facebook pages.

Commenting on the recent cyber attack in India, Mr. Attaa, whose blog has also been a victim of hacking attempts, says it’s impossible to stop any social media campaigns because they will keep coming up with new approaches. “No government in the world can control it, because that is how social media works,” he emphasizes.

But not everyone sees this latest attack as a concerted effort to undermine India.

Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani, a Fulbright scholar and Eisenhower fellow from Pakistan, says he doesn’t think the attacks are state-sponsored. “Looking at what is happening when it comes to cyber warfare, we can clearly see that the technical levels of either side are not up to the mark to be labeled as state-owned.”

He highlighted that the hackers in Pakistan and India target normal websites.

"They have never attacked government databases in both countries, showing that these cyber forces are operating independent of any state sponsorship," Mr. Usmani says, adding that information about state-sponsored cyber warfare on both sides of the border does not make it to the mainstream news media. "I am aware of such cyber attacks, but let's not delve into it. All I can tell you is, it is happening, but at a different level where the aim is to gather intelligence," he says.

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