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Future of Security: Digital (Cyber Space)

November 20, 2019 | Expert Insights


Signalling a dire warning, MK Narayanan, Former National Security Advisor to GOI & Governor of West Bengal, explained how technology has turned nation-states highly vulnerable to a number of security threats. And things are only about to get worse. While disclaiming that he was no “prophet of doom” his endeavour was only to highlight the challenges so that these could be deliberated upon. 


Having been intimately associated with the raising of India’s intelligence apparatus from the ashes of India’s humiliating 1962 debacle, MK Narayanan based his predictions for the future on his past experience when India was learning to navigate through the labyrinth of intelligence mazes.  

21st century has been unique in the sense it gave rise to new leadership styles with personalised authoritarianism, giving short shrift to ideologies and ideas. This makes the world a difficult place and forecasting its future even more so. This century did not witness the birth of any new political ideas or ideologies and the ideological vacuum has been taken over by nationalists. No new political ideas or ideologies were born in this century and the resulting vacuum has been occupied by nationalists. Therefore, “if the present is in turmoil, then the future is even more uncertain.” 

Economic power and big military budgets have failed to provide fool-proof security- US being the prime example.  This inarguable world leader of military power has been struggling to impose its will in many parts especially in its own backyard-Venezuela- and East Asia. China as well, while it has been able to allure smaller nations with economic promises of BRI, has not been able to negate the influence of larger countries like India and Japan, in Asia.  The larger world faces challenges from the imminent death of globalisation and a looming economic downturn, making the future bleak and demanding radical changes in security.

Human Security as a complete concept is being challenged by IT, biotech, nanotech and cyber technology. Since an all-out global war in today’s world has a terrible cost to mankind, we expect them to be confined to the cyber world.  Conventional conflicts will not vanish entirely but will be more like regional flashpoints, especially in West and North-West Asia and South Asia. 

While traditional nuclear powers have developed many safeguards to prevent a nuclear exchange, the real danger of nuclear warfighting stems from rogue nuclear states like North Korea and Iran which if pushed to a corner by the world could be tempted to use their nuclear arsenal as a last-ditch stand. However, the quintessential nightmare of every security agency is non-state actors getting their hands on a nuclear device.

The weaponization of outer space is no longer a concept but a reality and has surpassed nuclear proliferation as a major threat. Advanced satellite systems fitted with laser weapons are evolving, both India and China have conducted kinetic kills in outer space and US and Russian are in advance stage for space deployment of weapons platform.

Digital era has profoundly changed our operating environment. Big data technology is proving as much an enemy as a friend.” The internet is tempting users to trade privacy for entertainment and distraction, thus opening its doors to cyber criminality. Data has become the new gold lode and its sheer size makes its value in terms of financial gains far more than that of fossil fuel. Hence, the need to secure it. The issue which is increasingly causing concern and lending itself to conflict is the relationship between the privacy of the individual and the security needs of the state. A balance has to be found between these two contradicting requirements and cast iron procedures set to ensure equilibrium.  Limits have to be discussed, analysed and then once set, they have to be obeyed to bring order in the system. One thing, however, is clear that no individual can claim unbridled privacy in this connected cyberspace.  

The nature of cyber-attacks has been rapidly transforming from attacks on IT infrastructure to attacks on operational technology infrastructure. Artificial intelligence by itself cannot be relied upon to provide all-encompassing solutions to cyber problems as badly designed AI can itself be the cause of many more problems.

Non-state actors have in particular gained considerable expertise in exploiting the Dark Net to unleash internet-enabled terrorism. There are specific examples of terrorist acts being planned, coordinated and controlled from the anonymity of the web- from the identification of the target, identification of perpetrators, selection of weapon and its availability from within common items of daily use- all this achieved from the safety of safe houses without risking the crossing of borders.   

Physical topography, like the mighty Himalayas which guarded national sovereignty, are no longer relevant as digital world tunnels incessantly through our networks.  Military technology sphere has become ultra-destructive and AI-assisted weapons have the potential to upset the balance of power. US-China-Russia is in a mad rush to win this cyber arms race with immense advantages accruing to the winner. Crypto algorithms securing our critical systems will be unravelled in a flash by quantum computing and hyper-realistic images created by these computers will make veracity of truth itself a scarce resource. No password or biometric will survive their scrutiny.

There is now a vital need to have increasingly innovated exploitation of technology to come up with solutions for many of the challenges likely to come up. The new era calls for new partnerships, and solutions that empower people and embraces diversity. He noted, “I am a little concerned that many experts claim to know how to meet these challenges. Don’t be content with the quantum of knowledge that you possess.” 

There are serious ethical concerns as AI can be programmed to deliberately create filters based on ethnic/racial/ religious profiles and implement decisions based on these filters which may be difficult to otherwise rationalise or understand.

He ended his session with the fervent hope that the extensive talent and expertise at the Synergia Conclave would be able to come up with solutions to some of the challenges that have been raised.  “The 4th Industrial Revolution requires matching 4th generation skills”, was his advice to the distinguished gathering.


  • The cyberspace, always too complex to be given an impenetrable shield, its mushrooming with sophisticated yet vulnerable systems has given new challenges to the cyber warrior to defend. In fact, the advent of Quantum Computers will turn the entire concept of Digital Security on its head as the threats would multiply exponentially.
  • Architecture for cloud-based computing is completely different from the existing systems, as is data sciences.  They render known defences, protocols and procedures ineffective.  Defending this new technology base also requires a  totally fresh approach unburdened by pre-conceived notions of past successes.  Take for example the way businesses have leveraged data and analytics to drive profit while keeping costs down. Therefore, cybersecurity today has become a business imperative rather than merely an IT requirement.
  • These developments are driving change in the cybersecurity space and those who do not recognise them, are going to be caught unprepared.