Earlier this year, it was discovered that India was the target of two cyberattacks in the same month. The malware attacks at the Kundankulam Nuclear Power Plant and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) are believed to be the outcomes of phishing attempts on employees. In 2018, it was reported that an officer of the Indian Air Force was sharing sensitive information on Facebook with two women who had honey-trapped him. None of these incidents are known to have resulted in severe harm, but the possibility that they could have is reason enough for India to cultivate and shape international discussions on cyberspace.
As is the case with both international terrorism and protection of the environment, cooperation is a prerequisite to deal with cyberthreats given their borderless nature. India’s National Cyber Security Policy (2013) did not assign much weight to this aspect and defined no measurable outcomes against which progress could be judged. With its upcoming National CyberSecurity Policy (2020-2025), India has the opportunity to align its domestic policy with its global aspirations.
Warfare in Cyberspace Is Unique
Cyberspace is an amalgamation of the virtual with the physical. Actions in the virtual realm can affect the physical domain. With low barriers to entry, cyberspace provides attractive options for the launch of attacks and allows actors to achieve strategic outcomes both within and outside of the information domain. From crumbling critical infrastructure to designing a smart misinformation campaign that can influence democratic processes, the spectrum of outcomes that cyberattacks can achieve is broad. The Stuxnet malware, a U.S.-Israel joint operation to target Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant in Natanz, displayed the capabilities of a highly sophisticated and targeted cyber-offensive operation. Operations against Ukraine’s power grid in 2015, misinformation campaigns targeting U.S. presidential elections in 2016, and the WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware outbreaks in 2017 all showed the potential for real-world impact and collateral damage.
There are two features that distinguish these attacks from conventional ones. First, cyberattacks are hardly predictable. Accurately determining an incoming attack is at present not possible. Second, as long as there is plausible deniability, attribution is tough. As such, warfare in cyberspace poses a unique challenge to national security and the lack of rules to govern it intensifies this challenge.
Security in Cyberspace
The United Nations Charter, the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), and other regional arrangements provide a general overarching framework for governments to manage problems of security across all domains. Cyberspace differs from conventional domains of warfare because it functions as both a battlefield and a weapon. It is therefore risky to assume that existing rules of conflict can be extended to cyberspace as well.
American political scientist Joseph Nye has discussed the absence of coherence among existing norms that govern cyberspace. Existing practices are based on agreements between private players (largely multinational corporations) with only a mild degree of enforceability. Since providing security is a critical function of government and it is most susceptible to attacks, only governments are properly incentivized to set the rules. Numerous track two groups and various private conferences and commissions continue to work on the development of norms. Successive UN-GGEs (Governmental Groups of Experts) have developed a consensus that the UN Charter and international law apply to cyberspace. But cyberspace is changing faster than countries can legislate internally and negotiate externally.
There is no denying that all security efforts need to be collaborative. But as with international terrorism and environmental protection, effective norms and rules can only be set if all stakeholders consensually arrive at what the rules should be. Currently there are two camps on the global stage: a Sino-Russian camp and a rival one comprising the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The former espouses the supremacy of national sovereignty in the governance of domestic cyberspace, risk of destabilization by the application of existing international humanitarian law to cyberspace, and the need for new, binding international agreements. The latter advocates for a free and open internet as well as the full applicability of international law (including the right to self-defense, use of countermeasures) to cyberspace. Resolutions sponsoring the formation of the Russia-backed Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) and the UN-GGE 2019-21 were both passed in the United Nations General Assembly in 2018. The UN now has two parallel tracks working toward the establishment of norms in cyberspace. The OEWG is open to all member states and will hold consultations with stakeholders across members, NGOs, and private industry while the UN-GGE is comprised of 25 member states with consultation typically limited to regional organizations. The prevailing atmosphere of mistrust portends further deterioration rather than improvement. This variance between great powers has weighed heavily on international discussion on norms while cyberattacks continue to happen, quietly.
There is some scope for optimism yet. At a panel in the recently concluded Internet Governance Forum in Berlin, the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace (GCSC) proposed eight norms including protection of the public core of internet and infrastructure essential to elections, referenda, and plebiscites. This was followed by informal consultations at both the OEWG and UN-GGE in early December. Through the Paris Tech Accords, Digital Geneva Convention, and Charter or Trust, private companies have also sought to play a more active role in the shaping of norms, which is significant as they operate a significant portion of the public internet.
What Has India Done So Far?
In 2011, India’s proposal for a Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) comprising 50 member states was met with the criticism that it would create an exclusive club. Since then, an analysis of India’s contribution to debates on internet governance by the Center for Internet and Society (India) has revealed a tendency to shift between support for multilateralism and mutli-stakeholderism. Researchers have termed this “nuanced multilateralism,” where a broad range of stakeholders are consulted, but not involved in implementation and enforcement. On the question of cyberspace sovereignty, India seems to share common ground with the Sino-Russian camp, but has refrained from commenting definitively on the issues dividing the two camps. India was one of the member states that backed both UNGA resolutions that resulted in the formation of the OEWG and the UN-GGE (2019-2021). It is also a member of the UN-GGE and has not yet contributed formally to OEWG proceedings. On the multilateral front, it has stayed out of the Osaka Track for Data Governance and the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime.
There is no single approach that captures India’s engagement with multilateral institutions. Its rule-taker instinct is evident from India’s support for the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations. Contrary to this is the rule-breaker approach, which is evident from India’s endeavor to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state while also challenging the norms established by the Nonproliferation Treaty. The expectation that India will be a rule-maker all by itself is unrealistic. In the multipolar world that exists today, no single country, let alone India, can become make the only rule-maker. A more achievable goal for India would be to play the role of a rule-shaper, an active voice among rising powers. This goal finds its strength in India’s economic prowess and diplomatic experience in working with alliances.
India’s success in shaping the international narrative on climate change has already proven its ability as a rule-shaper. With its upcoming National Cybersecurity Policy (2020-2025), India must look to articulate and justify its position on the applicability of international law to cyberspace. It should bring its domestic policy in line with its global aspirations. Given the importance of private companies in this exercise, it must also consider creating an office of a tech ambassador that will present its position consistently. This level of transparency can serve as an important confidence-building measure as it engages across multiple stakeholders and fora to shape future norms.
Prateek Waghre and Shibani Mehta are Research Analysts at The Takshashila Institution, an independent center for research and education in public policy.