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Omair Ahmad is a Delhi-based writer. His last book was Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan (Aleph, 2013).

Hackers are no longer playing games

Recently, the film WarGames was on TV. Made in 1983, the movie was about a young nerd, David Lightman, who hacks into the US defence network and starts playing games built into the system. One of the games is "Global Thermonuclear War". Unknown to David the other player, Joshua, is the Artificial Intelligence (AI) system in charge of automatically managing the nuclear missiles in the U.S. nuclear silos. Unfortunately for David, Joshua cannot tell the difference between the real world and the game, and in playing the game the AI sets the stage for World War III between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Although the movie was basically about the futility of nuclear war, it was also the first major movie in which a hacker was the main character. As computer technology has become more of a feature in our lives, the hacker has become more powerful, and more prominent. David Lightman's character — a bored, underperforming young man, who was at the same time, enormously gifted at working with computers, and possibly on the wrong side of the law — saw its apotheosis in the blockbuster The Matrix, and its sequels. The main character, Neo, is almost godlike in his power, able to manipulate the world around him by his will.

Our view of hackers has also evolved, investing them with more power. Today, most hackers are invested in making money rather than either playing innocent games or starting World War III. According to a 2014 study by the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), hacking costs the global economy something along the lines of just under 1% of the global GDP, or about $500 billion (Rs 32,00,000 crores). According to the report, much of this is through the loss of innovation or ideas by companies. As companies lose their data to thieves, their incentive to innovate is deeply undermined, and this is the major cost estimate, according to the report. Then there are direct losses, such as stealing credit card data and stealing money that way. In many ways it is hard to be sure of these numbers. Many cybercrimes go largely unreported, especially those committed on countries.

As stated in a previous article, there seems to be strong evidence that the Chinese government managed to steal plans for the F-35 Strike Fighter to build its own. This would have cost the U.S. defence department tens of billions of dollars in development costs, but the U.S. government is not telling how much. Nevertheless, earlier this year the U.S. did decide to publicly confront the Chinese, and on 1 May 2014 a U.S. grand jury indicted five members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) for stealing secrets and conducting economic espionage. Although the targets were not named, it is rumoured that they included the nuclear technology company Westinghouse Electric Company, the solar energy giant, SolarWorld, and metal industry groups such as United States Steel Corporation and Allegheny Technologies Incorporated.

Our view of hackers has also evolved, investing them with more power. Today most hackers are invested in making money rather than either playing innocent games or starting World War III.

Despite the huge economic potential of the U.S., it is actually in India that one of the most elaborate systems of cyber espionage was discovered. To be precise it was discovered in Dharamsala, in the offices of the Central Tibetan Administration, the government of the Tibetan exile community. Called GhostNet by the Information Warfare Montior (IWM), which conducted a 10-month investigation in 2009, this was massive cyber-surveillance system that was being used against the exiled Tibetan community. Details of plans, as well as identities of people supporting the Tibetan cause were revealed. Tracing back the IP addresses led to Hainan island, where the Lingshui Signals Intelligence Facility is located. It is from here that the Third Technical Department of the PLA is suspected to carry out this form of cyberwarfare. Governments friendly to the Tibetan cause, especially India, have also been targeted as part of GhostNet.

While such hacking basically led to the stealing of data and information, in 2010 the Stuxnet virus was detected in Iran. Designed to sabotage the working of nuclear centrifuges in Iran's nuclear facilities, it worked by changing the speed at which the centrifuges were spinning, damaging and destroying them. Although enormously expensive to make, once it was discovered, Stuxnet was rendered harmless. More troublingly, the design was revealed, and it was reported that Stuxnet-like viruses were being traded on the black market. Today, we increasingly use automated, computerised systems to manage our lives, whether it is automated parking garages, or train and traffic signalling. Like Joshua in WarGames, much of our lives is increasingly under the control of automated systems, and just like Joshua, those systems are vulnerable to hackers.

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