1] The wings of Pegasus, the epoch of cyberweapons (GS 3  security)

Context –

  • A worldwide debate over the misuse of Pegasus spyware — much of which is mired in facts, suppositions, false trails, allegations and counter-allegations, but contains more than a kernel of truth — has reignited a debate about the role of cyber weapons. Cyberattacks on financial institutions and critical infrastructure have increased to alarming levels, signalling the dawn of the cyber weapon epoch.
  • What has been worth reflecting on since the turn of the century is that, while Moore’s Law has democratised access to computing and the Internet has opened up a whole new avenue for communication, all of this has come at a cost.
  • Privacy has been eroded, and the Internet has evolved into a powerful weapon in the hands of those seeking to exploit its various facets, true to its Cold War origins.

Preferential Treatment –

  • In addition to land, sea, air, and space, cyber is frequently referred to as the fifth dimension of warfare. It is important to note, however, that cyber as a domain of military and national security coexists with cyber as a domain of everyday life.
  • By the first decade of the twenty-first century, cyberspace had progressed from merely a new domain of warfare to essentially a civilian space.
  • Cyberweapons have always been considered special weapons, similar to nuclear weapons in the past. Following the release of the Stuxnet Worm by a joint US-Israeli effort in 2010 — which helped disable hundreds of centrifuges at the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz — it became clear that humanity had indeed unleashed a new weapon, and had crossed the Rubicon.
  • It’s only a short step between sabotage and intrusive surveillance. Many stories about the Pegasus spyware’s use circulated long before the current controversy, because WhatsApp sued NSO in 2019 over allegations that the Pegasus spyware had been used on hundreds of its users.
  • However, the Israeli firm’s claim that the spyware is only sold to governments and official agencies has been debunked. Pegasus is classified as a cyberweapon by Israel, which claims that its exports are regulated.

Work in Progress –

  • According to reports, the Pegasus spyware can copy sent and received messages, “harvest photos and record calls,” “secretly film through the phone’s camera,” and “activate the microphone to record conversations.”
  • It may be able to determine where you are, where you’ve been, and who you’ve met. Once installed on a phone, the spyware can collect almost any data or extract almost any file’. The makers of Pegasus, the NSO Group, are working hard to make the spyware difficult to detect.
  • A quick review of the most damaging cyberattacks over the last decade and a half, with and without the Pegasus spyware, can be instructive.
  • The devastating cyberattack on Estonia’s critical infrastructure in 2007 was followed by the Stuxnet worm attack on Iran’s nuclear facility a few years later. In 2012, Saudi Aramco was attacked by the Shamoon virus.
  • Following that, there was a 2016 cyberattack on Ukraine’s state power grid; a 2017 Ransomware attack (NotPetya) that affected machines in as many as 64 countries; a Wannacry attack on the UK’s National Health Service the same year; and a series of attacks this year on Ireland’s Health Care System and in the US, including ‘SolarWinds,’ the cyber attack on Colonial Pipeline, and others.

Grave Threat –

  • Things have reached a tipping point, with cyberweapons becoming the weapon of choice not only in times of conflict but also in times of peace.
  • Cyberweapons have the potential to distort civilian and military systems and structures, as well as to disrupt democratic processes, exacerbate domestic divisions, and, most importantly, to unleash forces over which established institutions or even governments have little control.
  • All of this and more is included in the Pegasus spyware. For the time being, it is hiding behind a veil of anonymity and the unwillingness of those who have purchased it to acknowledge its misuse, but this is only a temporary reprieve.
  • Cyber methods that undermine capabilities can be anonymous for a limited time, but not indefinitely. It may appear unrecognisable for the time being, but this will only last a short time.

Conclusion –

  • With the introduction of cyber weapons like Pegasus, technology that was once regarded as a friend could quickly become a source of despair. Building proper defences will be difficult given the rate at which cyber technology evolves.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) is frequently portrayed as a panacea for many of today’s problems and ills, but technological advancements are always a double-edged sword.
  • To be honest, AI could make all information warfare, including cyber warfare, nearly impossible to detect, deflect, or prevent, at least at the current stage of AI tool development.
  • Meanwhile, easier access to newer cyber espionage tools will exacerbate the already chaotic situation. All of this suggests that in an era of ever-expanding cyberweapons, security may become a vanishing horizon.

2] Shared values: On India and the U.S. (GS 2 IR)

Context –

  • The day-visit to Delhi by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week was heavy on discussions but light on deliverables, which was understandable.
  • The trip, which was the third by a senior US official in the Biden administration, was intended to pave the way for more substantive meetings in Washington later this year, including the “2+2” meeting of Foreign and Defense Ministers between the US and India, the Quad summit of its leaders, and a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joseph Biden.
  • The majority of Mr. Blinken’s and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s conversations, according to public statements and readouts, are focused on Quad cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, Afghanistan, and the state of democracy and rights.

The Afghan Issue –

  • Mr. Jaishankar said that on the common positions that there is no military solution to conflict and that neither country would recognise a Taliban regime that took Kabul by force, there were “more convergences than divergences.”
  • The differences, on the other hand, are more concerning for India, given that the consequences of the US withdrawal will result in a less secure region.
  • Despite the Taliban leadership’s refusal to enforce a ceasefire and stop attacks against civilians in areas they take over, the US continues to engage the Taliban in talks for a power-sharing agreement.
  • The militia is also attempting to suffocate the Afghan government’s trade and financial supply chains. The United States’ refusal to hold Pakistan accountable for providing shelter to the Taliban is perhaps India’s greatest concern, as this will only embolden Islamabad if the Taliban advance in Afghanistan.
  • New Delhi skirted around the United States’ announcement of a new “Quad” on connectivity with Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but this is another cause for concern.

On Democratic Values –

  • Both sides claimed to have “shared values” when it came to democratic freedoms. Mr. Blinken, on the other hand, began his meetings with a “civil society roundtable” in which he discussed internal Indian issues such as minority rights, religious freedoms, and media and dissent restrictions, indicating that these were important issues for the Democrat administration.
  • Mr. Jaishankar had a three-pronged response to a question about India’s democratic “backslide,” reiterating that the same standards apply to the US and India, and that policies that have drawn international criticism, such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the Article 370 amendment, and anti-conversion laws, were part of the Modi government’s attempt to “right historic wrongs.”

Conclusion –

  • Despite both sides’ attempts to cover up the cracks, this is an issue that they will have to deal with in the future, even as they continue to build on the strong “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership” that the world’s oldest and most populous democracies share.


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