In a report dated August 18, 2021, a private US-based cyber forensic laboratory said that it has found evidence of Pegasus surveillance software on a mobile phone belonging to Rona Wilson, an accused who is currently in prison for an alleged role in the 2018 Elgar Parishad case.
Recently, Facebook’s newly formed parent company, Meta Platforms Inc., announced that it is conducting a major crackdown on surveillance companies that have used its social media websites to spy on people in more than 100 countries.
Interestingly, Meta reportedly identified six companies from India, Israel, North Macedonia, and an unknown city in China, which it (Meta) claimed was indulging in ‘indiscriminate’ surveillance on thousands of people. The Mueller Commission in its report has also stated that Russian hackers indulged in large-scale hacking during the 2016 US Presidential and had a major impact on the outcome of the elections. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s online profile, emails, etc were allegedly hacked by a hacker or a group of hackers named ‘Guccifer 2.0’.
As per the reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin had himself ordered an ‘influence campaign’ to lower Hillary’s credibility. Edward Snowden became a household name across the globe after he leaked the sensitive US cables exposing thousands confidential information including how almost all investigative agencies of all countries were indulging in large-scale hacking, illegal surveillance, cyber-stalking, etc. In 2016, hacker ‘Phineas Phisher’ claimed to have hacked the entire database of Turkey’s AKP Party and reportedly stole more than three lakh internal emails and files.
Emails of Turkey’s President Erdogan were released online, resulting in a major embarrassment to Turkey. The hacker claimed that he did the hack to support the people in Rojava and Bakur who were being reportedly attacked by the Turkish military. Before doing this sensational hack, the same hacker did a ‘Robinhood’ by stealing 10,000 Euros in bitcoins and donating it to the people of Rojava. All these incidents make one thing clear, if some of the most prominent people and governments can be targeted so easily, you and I do not stand any chance against any form of cyberattack or hack.
Online crimes are here to stay because the world now runs on the internet. And after the corona pandemic hit us, almost every kind of monetary transaction has gone online. It is up to us to protect ourselves, because the system, authorities, the police, and the law still have a lot of catching up to do.
Hackers, and other cyber criminals always stay three steps ahead of our investigative agencies. The internet also gives them the anonymity to rampantly loot innocents who are vulnerable. In other words, your neighbourhood pickpocket has now become faceless and is no longer restricted to operating in the neighborhood.
A young teenager sitting in a remote village of China can easily target you and steal your money from your bank account, credit cards and other places. And, unfortunately, our police cannot do anything about it. Hence, it is pertinent we learn to protect ourselves and our money (see box on how to take steps to protect yourself online). Existing laws are unable to prove a deterrent to cybercriminals, as they do not have the teeth which are needed to deal with such crimes. When we come across information like Pegasus, we realise how easy it is to target anyone.
The Indian Telegraph Act and the Information Technology (IT) Acts that we have are toothless when it comes to dealing with such issues.
As per the records, registration of cyber offences is among the lowest in our country primarily because citizens and police both are not aware of the laws and procedures. Cyber police stations are very few in numbers and are often manned by policemen who are not experts in the field. There is an urgent need to increase the number of cyber police stations across the country and appoint cyber experts to man these police stations. If need be, the government and administration should appoint private personnel from outside the police force so that cases are registered properly and investigated thoroughly.
Police officers, citizens, judiciary, government-run departments, private sector, banks, need to be continuously sensitized to various laws, acts and procedures regarding cyber-crimes. Victims should be encouraged to register offences so that those who are responsible can be identified, arrested, and put behind bars. Since the percentage of registering offences is low, the detection rate is even low and the conviction rate is abysmally low.
This encourages cyber criminals to go on an online rampage. One aspect that can be addressed immediately would be to increase the number of Investigating Officers (IO) for cyber-crimes. As per the current regulations, officers of the rank of police inspector (PI) should be appointed as IOs in cybercrime cases. Typically, the number of PIs is always less and when available are put on other important duties such as law and order and investigating serious crimes.
If this regulation is relaxed and changed to IOs being of the rank of police sub-inspector (PSI) then there will be a larger pool available to appoint as IOs. The administration can also select a group of PSIs, train them thoroughly and appoint them in the cybercrime divisions on a long-term basis.
They should be dedicated to fighting cyber offenses. This will give them the bandwidth to study and investigate cases and invest their time in it.
If individuals from the private sector who are experts can be appointed as investigating officers or even assist in investigations, it will go a long way in investigating and detecting cyber cases. Awareness must be created within the judiciary and our lawmakers as well, so that newer laws can be enacted to deal with the menace and existing laws can be amended to empower the investigators to detect cases and prevent cybercrimes.
Cybercrimes are not just about monetary offences. People are being targeted for molestation, rape, and other serious offences. Drugs are supplied online, even weapons are being bought and delivered online. Addiction to social media, pornography is turning our younger generation into addicts and depression, leading to some even committing suicides and killing others. This online menace is here to stay and is going to be difficult to tame entirely. We need to learn to deal with this monster at the earliest.
This is how we can avoid being targeted
Do not give personal information to anyone
Do not meet anyone in person who you have met online, without confirming and re-confirming the authenticity of the individual
Receive, accept, and open emails, files, pictures, texts, videos online from reliable sources
Seek help from family, friends, and authorities if you are being bullied online
Due to poverty and rise in unemployment, there will be an increase in online frauds.
Do not share your credit card and banking details and passwords or OTP numbers
Keep your social media accounts private n Keep your password strong and a secret
Don’t allow others to access your electronic gadgets
Don’t visit the dark web n Remember your profiles are being watched by various agencies
Allow parental control on electronic devices n Don’t get into deadly online games
Don’t hesitate to approach the cyber police n When shopping or banking online, look for secure websites
Shop only at reputable online merchants
Be wary of any offer that’s too good to be true
Don’t click on links in email or on social media from banks, credit card companies, government agencies, or other organisations
Monitor your online financial accounts
The writer is the Director General of Police (DGP) (Retired), Maharashtra, Former Police commissioner of Mumbai and ex-chief of elite Mumbai Crime Branch. He is also an award winning author,
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