As boundary-less cyberspace becomes increasingly pervasive, cyber threats continue to pose serious challenges to all nations’ economic security and digital development. For example, sophisticated attacks such as the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017 rendered more than two million computers useless with estimated damages of up to four billion dollars. As cyber security threats continue to proliferate and evolve at an unprecedented rate, incidents of doxing, distributed denial of service (DDoS), and phishing attacks are on the rise and are being offered as services for hire. The task at hand is intensified due to the sheer number of cyber incidents in India. A closer look suggests that the challenge is exacerbated due to an outdated framework and lack of basic safeguards.
This post will examine one such framework, namely the definition of cybersecurity under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act).
Under Section 2(1)(nb) of the IT Act:
“cyber security” means protecting information, equipment, devices computer, computer resource, communication device and information stored therein from unauthorised access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification or destruction;
This post contends that the Indian definitional approach adopts a predominantly technical view of cyber security and restricts effective measures to ensure cyber-resilience between governmental authorities, industry, non-governmental organisations, and academia. This piece also juxtaposes the definition against key elements from global standards under foreign legislations and industry practices.
What is Cyber security under the IT Act?
The current definition of cyber security was adopted under the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2009. This amendment act was hurriedly adopted in the aftermath of the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attacks of 2008. The definition was codified to facilitate protective functions under Sections 69B and 70B of the IT Act. Section 69B enables monitoring and collection of traffic data to enhance cyber security, prevent intrusion and spread of contaminants. Section 70B institutionalised Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), to identify, forecast, issue alerts and guidelines, coordinate cyber incident response, etc. and further the state’s cyber security imperatives. Subsequently, the evolution of various institutions that perform key functions to detect, deter, protect and adapt cybersecurity measures has accelerated. However, this post argues that the current definition fails to incorporate elements necessary to contemporise and ensure effective implementation of cyber security policy.
Critique of the IT Act definition
It is clear that deterrence has failed as the volume of incidents does not appear to abate, making cyber-resilience a realistic objective that nations should strive for. The definition under the IT Act is an old articulation of protecting the referent objects of security- “information, equipment, devices computer, computer resource, communication device and information” against specific events that aim to cause harm these objects through “unauthorised access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification or destruction”.
There are a few issues with this dated articulation of cybersecurity. First, it suffers from the problem of restrictive listing as to what is being protected (aforementioned referent objects). Second, by limiting the referent objects and events within the definition it becomes prescriptive. Third, the definition does not capture the multiple, interwoven dimensions and inherent complexity of cybersecurity which includes interactions between humans and systems. Fourth, due to limited enlisting of events, similar protection is not afforded from accidental events and natural hazards to cyberspace-enabled systems (including cyber-physical systems and industrial control systems). Fifth, the definition is missing key elements – (1) It does not include technological solutions aspect of cyber security such as in the International Telecommunication Union (2009) definition that acknowledges “technologies that can be used to protect the cyber environment” and; (2) fails to incorporate the strategies, processes, and methods that will be undertaken. With key elements missing from the definition, it falls behind contemporary standards, which are addressed in the following section.
To put things in perspective, global conceptualisations of cybersecurity are undergoing a major overhaul to accommodate the increased complexity, pace, scale and interdependencies across the cyberspace and information and communication technologies (ICT) environments. In comparison, the definition under the IT Act has remained unchanged.
Although wider conceptualisations have been reflected through international and national engagements such as the National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP). For example, within the mission statement the policy document recognises technological solution elements; and interactions between humans and ICTs in cyberspace as one key rationale behind the cyber security policy.
However, differing conceptualisations across policy and legislative instruments can lead to confusion and introduce implementational challenges within cybersecurity regulation. For example, the 2013 CERT-In Rules rely on the IT Act’s definition of cyber security and define cyber security incidents and cyber security breaches. Further emphasising the narrow and technically dominant discourse which relate to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability triad.
The following section examines a few other definitions to illustrate the shortcomings highlighted above.
Key elements of Cyber security
Despite a plethora of definitions, there is no universal agreement on the conceptualisation of cybersecurity globally. This has manifested into the long-drawn deliberations at various international fora.
Cybersecurity aims to counter and tackle a constantly evolving threat landscape. Although it is difficult to build consensus on a singular definition, a few key features can be agreed upon. For example, the definition must address interdisciplinarity inherent to cyber security, its dynamic nature and the multi-level complex ecosystem cyber security exists in. A multidisciplinary definition can aid authorities and organizations in having visibility and insight as to how new technologies can affect their risk exposure. It will further ensure that such risks are suitably mitigated. To effectuate cyber-resilience, stakeholders have to navigate governance, policy, operational, technical and legal challenges.
An inclusive definition can ensure a better collective response and bring multiple stakeholders to the table. To institutionalise greater emphasis on resilience an inclusive definition can foster cooperation between various stakeholders rather than a punitive approach that focuses on liability and criminality. An inclusive definition can enable a bottom-up approach in countering cyber security threats and systemic incidents across sectors. It can also further CERT-In’s information-sharing objectives through collaboration between stakeholders under section 70B of the IT Act.
When it comes to the regulation of technologies that embody socio-political values, contrary to popular belief that technical deliberations are objective and value-neutral, such discourse (in this case, the definition) suffers from the dominance of technical perspectives. For example, the definition of cybersecurity under the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) framework is, “the ability to protect or defend the use of cyberspace from cyber-attacks” directs the reader to the definitions of cyberspace and cyberattack to extensively cover its various elements. However, the said definitions also has a predominantly technical lens.
Alternatively, definitions of cyber security would benefit from inclusive conceptions that factor in human engagements with systems, acknowledge interrelated dimensions and inherent complexities of cybersecurity, which involves dynamic interactions between all inter-connected stakeholders. An effective cybersecurity strategy entails a judicious mix of people, policies and technology, as well as a robust public-private partnership.
Cybersecurity is a broad term and often has highly variable subjective definitions. This hinders the formulation of appropriately responsive policy and legislative actions. As a benchmark, we borrow the Dan Purse et al. definition of cybersecurity– “the organisation and collection of resources, processes, and structures used to protect cyberspace and cyberspace-enabled systems from occurrences that misalign de jure from de facto property rights.” The benefit of this articulation is that it necessitates a deeper understanding of the harms and consequences of cyber security threats and their impact. However, this definition cannot be adopted within the Indian legal framework as (a) property rights are not recognised as fundamental rights and (b) this narrows its application to a harms and consequences standard.
Most importantly, the authors identify five common elements to form a holistic and effective approach towards defining cybersecurity. The following elements are from a literature review of 9 cybersecurity definitions are:
- technological solutions
- strategies, processes, and methods
- human engagement; and
- referent objects.
These elements highlight the complexity of the process and involve interaction between humans and systems for protecting the digital assets and themselves from various known and unknown risks. Simply put, any unauthorized access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification or destruction results in at least, a loss of functional control over the affected computer device or resource to the detriment of the person and/or legal entity in whom lawful ownership of the computer device or resource is vested. The definition codified under the IT Act only partly captures the complexity of ‘cyber security’ and its implications.
Economic interest is a core objective that necessitates cyber-resilience. Recognising the economic consequences of such attacks rather than protecting limited resources such as computer systems acknowledges the complex approaches to cybersecurity. Currently, the definition of cybersecurity is dominated by technical perspectives, and disregards other disciplines that should be ideally acting in concert to address complex challenges. Cyber-resilience can be operationalised through a renewed definition; divergent approaches within India to tackle cybersecurity challenges will act as a strategic barrier to economic growth, data flow, investments, and most importantly effective security. It will also divert resources away from more effective strategies and capacity investments. Finally, the Indian approach should evolve and stem from the threat perception, the socio-technical character of the term, and aim to bring cybersecurity stakeholders together.