The Indian Government is set to initiate a widely discussed cybersecurity regulation later this month. On April 28, 2022, India’s national agency for computer incident response, also known as the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), released Directions relating to information security practices, the procedure, prevention, response, and reporting of cyber incidents for Safe & Trusted Internet. These Directions were introduced under section 70B(6) of India’s Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act). This provision allows CERT-In to call for information and issue Directions to carry out its obligations relating to:
1. facilitating the collection, analysis and dissemination of information related to cyber incidents,
2. releasing forecasts and alerts, and
3. taking emergency measures.
According to the IT Act, the new Directions are mandatory in nature, and non-compliance attracts criminal penalties which includes imprisonment of up to one year. The notification states that the Directions will become effective 60 days from the days of issuance i.e. on June 28, 2022. The Directions were later followed by a separate Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document, released as a response to stakeholder queries and concerns.
These Directions have been introduced in response to increasing instances of cyber security incidents which undermine national security, public order, essential government functions, economic development, and security threats against individuals operating through cyberspace. Further, recognizing that the private sector is a crucial component of the digital ecosystem, the Directions also push for closer cooperation between private organisations and government enforcement agencies. Consequently, the Directions have identified sharing of information for analysis, investigation, and coordination concerning the cyber security incidents as one of its prime objectives.
POLICY SIGNIFICANCE OF DIRECTIONS
Presently, Indian cybersecurity policy lacks a definite form. The National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP) was released in 2013 serves as an “umbrella framework for defining and guiding the actions related to security of cyberspace”. However, the policy has seen very limited implementation and has been mired in a multi-year reform which awaits completion. The new cybersecurity strategy is still in the works, and there is no single agency to oversee all relevant entities and hold them accountable.
Cybersecurity policymaking and governance are progressing through different government departments at national and state levels in silos and in a piecemeal manner. Several cybersecurity experts have also identified the lack of adequate technical skills and resource constraints as a significant challenge for government bodies. The Indian cybersecurity policy landscape needs to address these existing and emerging threats and challenges by instilling appropriate security standards, efficient implementation of modern technologies, framing of effective and laws and security policies, and adapting multi-stakeholder approaches within cybersecurity governance.
Industry associations and lobby groups such as US Chamber of Commerce (USCC), US-India Business Council (USIBC), The Software Alliance (BSA), and Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) have responded to the Directions with criticism. These organisations have stated that these Directions, in present format, would negatively impact Indian and global enterprises and undermine cybersecurity. Moreover, the Directions were released without any public consultations and therefore, lack necessary stakeholder inputs from across industry, civil society, academia and technologists.
The new CERT-In Directions mandate covered entities (service providers, intermediaries, data centers, body corporate and governmental organisations) to comply with prescriptive requirements that include time synchronisation of ICT clocks, excessive data retention requirements, 6 hr reporting requirement of cyber incidents, among others. The next section critically evaluates salient features of the Directions.
SALIENT FEATURES OF THE DIRECTIONS
Time Synchronisation: Clause (i) of the Directions mandates service providers, intermediaries, data centers, body corporate and governmental organisations to connect to the Network Time Protocol (NTP) Server of National Informatics Centre (NIC) or National Physical Laboratory (NPL) or with NTP servers traceable to these NTP servers, for synchronisation of all their ICT systems clocks. For organisations whose operations span multiple jurisdictions, the Directions allow relaxation by allowing them to use alternative servers. However, the time source of concerned servers should be the same as that of NPL or NIC. Several experts have raised that the requirement as extremely cumbersome, resource-intensive, and not in conformity with industry best practices. As per the established practice, companies often base their decision regarding NTP servers on practicability (lower latency) and technical efficiency. The experts have raised concerns over the technical and resource constraints with NIC and NPL servers in managing traffic volumes, and thus questioning the practical viability of the provision. .
Six-hour Reporting Requirement: Clause (ii) requires covered entities to mandatorily report cyber incidents within six hours of noticing such incidents or being notified about such incidents. The said Direction imposes a stricter requirement than what has been prescribed under Information Technology (The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team and Manner of Performing Functions and Duties) Rules, 2013 (CERT-In Rules) that allows the covered entities to report the reportable cyber incident within “a reasonable time of occurrence or noticing the incident to have scope for timely action”. The six hour reporting requirement is also stricter than the established norms in other jurisdictions, including the USA, EU, UK, and Australia. Such reporting requirements normally range from 24 hours to 72 hours, depending upon the affected sector, type of cyber intrusion, and attack severity. The CERT-In Directions make no such distinctions in its reporting requirement. Further, the reportable cyber security incidents under Annexure 1 feature an expanded list of cyber incidents (compared to what are mentioned in the CERT-In Rules). These reportable cyber incidents are defined very broadly and range from unauthorised access to systems, identity theft, spoofing and phishing attacks to data branches and data theft. Considering that an average business entity with digital presence engages in multiple digital activities and there is no segregation on the basis of scale or severity of incident, the Direction may be impractical to achieve, and may create operational/compliance challenges for many smaller business entities covered under the Directions. Government agencies often require business entities to comply with incident/breach reporting requirements to understand macro cybersecurity trends, cross-cutting issues, and sectoral weaknesses. Therefore, governments must design cyber incident reporting requirements tailormade to sectors, severity, risk and scale of impact. Not making these distinctions can make reporting exercise resource-intensive and futile for both affected entities and government enforcement agencies.
Maintenance of logs for 180 days for all ICT systems within India: Clause (iv) mandates covered entities to maintain logs of all the ICT systems for a period of 180 days and to store the same within Indian jurisdiction. Such details may be provided to CERT-In while reporting a cyber incident or otherwise when directed. Several experts have raised concerns over a lack of clarity regarding scope of the provision. The term “all ICT systems” in its present form could include a huge trove of log information that may extend up to 1 Terabyte a day. It further requires the entities to retain log information for 180 days as opposed to the current industry practice (30 days). This Direction is not in line with the purpose limitation and the data minimisation principles recognized widely in several other jurisdictions including EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and does not provide adequate safeguard against indiscriminate data collection that may negatively impact the end users. Further, many experts have pointed out that the concerned Direction lacks transparency and is detrimental to the privacy of the users. As the log information often carries personally indefinable information (PII), the provision may conflict with users informational privacy rights. CERT-In’s Directions are not sufficiently clear on the safeguard measures to balance legal enforcement objectives with the fundamental rights.
Strict data retention requirements for VPN and Cloud Service Providers: Clause (v) requires “Data Centres, Virtual Private Server (VPS) providers, Cloud Service providers, and Virtual Private Network Service (VPN Service) providers” to register accurate and detailed information regarding subscribers or customers hiring the services for a period of 5 years or longer after any cancellation or withdrawal of the registration. Such information shall include the name, address, and contact details of subscribers/ customers hiring the services, their ownership pattern, the period of hire of such services, and e-mail ID, IP address, and time stamp used at the time of registration. Clause (vi) directs virtual asset service providers, virtual asset exchange providers, and custodian wallet providers to maintain all KYC records and details of all financial transactions for a five year period. These Directions are resource-intensive and would substantially increase the compliance cost for many companies. It is also important to note that bulk data retention for a longer time period also creates greater vulnerabilities and attack surfaces of private/sensitive/commercial ICT use. As India is still to enact its data protection law, and the Directions are silent on fundamental rights safeguards, it has also led to serious privacy concerns. Further, some entities covered under this direction, including VPS or VPN providers, are privacy and security advancing services that operate on a strict no-log policy. VPN services provide a secure channel for storing and sharing information by individuals and businesses. VPNs are readily used by the business and individuals to protect themselves on unsecured, public Wifi networks, prevent website tracking, protect themselves from malicious websites, against government surveillance, and for transferring sensitive and confidential information. While VPNs have come under fire for being used by cybercriminals and other malicious actors, a blanket requirement for maintaining logs and excessive data retention requirement goes against the very nature of the service and may render these services pointless (and even insecure) for many users. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), released following the CERT-In Directions have absolved the Enterprise/Corporate VPNs from the said requirement. However, the Directions still stand for VPN Service providers that provide “Internet proxy like services” to general Internet subscribers/users. As a result, some of the largest VPN service providers including NordVPN, and PureVPN have indicated the possibility of pulling their servers out of India and quitting their operations in India.
In a separate provision [Clause (iii)], CERT-In has also directed the service providers, intermediaries, data centers, body corporate, and government organisations to designate a point of contact to interface with CERT-In. The Directions have also asked the covered entities to provide information or any other assistance that CERT-In may require as part of cyber security mitigation actions and enhanced cyber security situational awareness.
Our ever-growing dependence on digital technology and its proceeds has exposed us to several vulnerabilities. Therefore, the State plays a vital role in intervening through concrete and suitable policies, institutions and digital infrastructures to protect against future cyber threats and attacks. However, the task is too vast to be handled by the governments alone and requires active participation by the private sector, civil society, and academia. While the government has a broader perspective of potential threats through law enforcement and intelligence organisations and perceives cybersecurity concerns from a national security lens, the commercial and fundamental rights dimensions of cybersecurity would benefit from inputs from the wider stakeholder community across the cybersecurity ecosystem.
Although in recent years, India has shown some inclination of embracing multi-stakeholder governance within cybersecurity policymaking, the CERT-In Directions point in the opposite direction. Several of the directions mentioned by the CERT-In, such as the six-hour reporting requirement, excessive data retention requirements, synchronisation of ICT clocks indicate that the government appear to adopt a “command and control” approach which may not be the most beneficial way of approaching cybersecurity issues. Further, the Directions have also failed to address the core issue of capacity constraints, lack of skilled specialists and lack of awareness which could be achieved by establishing a more collaborative approach by partnering with the private sector, civil society and academia to achieve the shared goal of cybersecurity. The multi stakeholder approaches to policy making have stood the test of time and have been successfully applied in a range of policy space including climate change, health, food security, sustainable economic development, among others. In cybersecurity too, the need for effective cross-stakeholder collaboration is now recognised as a key to solving difficult and challenging policy issues and produce credible and workable solutions. The government, therefore, needs to affix institutions and policies that fully recognize the need and advantages of taking up multi stakeholder approaches without compromising accountability systems that give due consideration to security threats and safeguard citizen rights.