Defending Lanka’s cyberspace frontline | Daily News


Defending Lanka’s cyberspace frontline

COVID-19 has given the popular social media term ‘going viral’ a physically deadly meaning to all of us. Computer malware, because of its operation as software that intrudes and spreads throughout computer systems at speed, are as destructive in digital systems as physical viruses are in the human body.   

Since the dawn of human civilisation, the world has known of the physical devastation caused by biological viruses, especially the communicable ones, although it is only in the 1930s that we could actually see them, with the advent of electron microscopes. Since the late 20th Century, humanity has become so dependent on digital communications and computer systems, that the damage caused by computer viruses is considered almost as damaging as the biological disease-causing ructive ways. Digital communications are, today, enabling the greatest ever human consultation and collaboration in the battle to contain and ultimately suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. The degree of digital communications usage today, in terms of volume and geographical ones.

It is ironical that, in the 21st Century, humanity is now discovering that the biological and digital viruses are complementary in both constructive and immensely destscale and, in depth of  content, is truly historic.

On the one hand digital communication systems, popularly termed ‘cyberspace’, are being used to the optimum for the immediate contingency response to the pandemic. This includes sharing of data, research and administrative remote deliberations and, public communications to manage societal reactions and guide social hygiene, among other things.

On the other hand, the digital data and communications networks have opened up an exotic new cosmos of remote human interaction that is now being explored in all areas of collective human activity – economic, administrative, technocratic and professional. Humanity, even as it struggles with poverty, war, social oppression and immense ecological degradation, is, under the compulsions of a deadly health crisis, exploring cyberspace for virtual alternatives to social interactions now blocked by counter-pandemic measures.

It could be said that the world’s digital data and communications systems have reached such a stage of maturity that its powerful new sinews are now opportunely available for dealing with one of the worst global emergencies confronted by humanity in centuries. What is ironic is that the sheer speed of human communications and movement achieved by humanity today, including the speed of data exchange, contributed to the contagion. COVID-19 seems to be the fastest spreading contagion ever, and the awesome processing and transmission speeds and capacities of 21st Century digital systems are a critically appropriate counter to it.

At the same time, our digital systems are being abused and manipulated in ways that could undermine these efforts and misguide human users into behaviour that spreads rather than counters the contagion. This is why the public needs to be alert not only for the physical disease threat but also for the viral and criminal threat we face in cyberspace.  

Just last week the information technology authorities in Sri Lanka detected and responded to several ‘cyber attacks’ on the digital systems of some public and private sector institutions. These seemed to be criminally motivated in terms of commercial plunder and, the country’s cyber management and support infrastructure responded quickly enough to ensure minimal loss of data and finance.

In the previous week, no less than five public and private institutions came under simultaneous cyber-attacks. In these cases, there seems to have been political motivation originating from overseas remnants of the crushed former secessionist movement. 

The Information & Communications Technology Agency (ICTA) and the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT), are the lead agencies, along with the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), managing Sri Lanka’s digital data storage and communications systems. SLCERT units already have a reputation of consistent and successful professional response in cyberspace contingencies, and went active immediately to deal with the latest cyber attacks. The Air Force’s own IT units, previously tested in cyber warfare with now defunct secessionist groups operating overseas, also gave their support. 

As described above, the world’s digital systems have now taken on a new critical importance for the whole of society, not just in the combatting COVID-19. Some dimensions of organisational life, in the economy, administration and corporate management, among others, are being transformed forever as we get used to working from home or, engaging in planning and decision-making remotely or, operating technology remotely.

Thus, the defence of our cyberspace is now becoming an integral part of the overall defence of our geophysical territory and society. Both the public and private sectors and, also, civil society organisations relevant to aspects of public health, security and social management, must all collaborate in further building up the architecture – institutional and virtual – in the defence of our cyberspace.

Cyberspace may be as infinite and vast as the physical world and humanity’s engagement with it is inevitably multi-dimensional. All relevant stakeholders in society, therefore, need to be involved in its exploration.

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