*Indian Railways at risk of cyberattacks and data theft*
October 16, 2020 • Canon Times Bureau

Can cyberattacks on critical national infrastructure be thwarted?

By Rajeev Narayan.

In June, when India was under lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic and

the defence forces were in a dangerous faceoff with the Chinese army on the

Ladakh border, the Indian railway network came under cyberattack. Indian

Railways was hit by a malware APT 26 that was stealing its data, including train

movements, and storing it in foreign locations. The Railway Board had to

immediately disconnect the system from the internet and change the password.

Curiously, the cyberattack happened barely a day after the government cancelled

a 417-km signalling project worth Rs 471 crores with a Chinese company.

Not only our rail system but our nation’s power transmission grid, oil networks,

dams and airports are increasingly targets of hackers. Just last year, Indian media

reported India’s power sector faced rising cyberattacks, with an average of 30

reported daily. Naturally, there are growing concerns India’s power infrastructure

can be a target of those foreign powers seeking to paralyze India’s economy. The

issue has become more critical now the country has an integrated national power

grid. This vulnerability is even more crucial against the backdrop of increased

hostility between India and China in the Ladakh region, which can turn “hot” at

any time. Clearly, the nature of modern warfare has changed, with serious

implications for India’s national security.

In its annual worldwide threat assessment report, the Office of the Director of

National Intelligence, US, which was tabled in the Senate in January 2019, gave a

detailed insight into the cyber threat posed by China.The Report said China now

could successfully target critical infrastructure, such as the electric grid and

cause “temporary disruptive effects” virtually anywhere in the world.

To protect national assets such as the railways and electric infrastructure, dieselelectric locomotives with clean emissions technology can provide India with a

vital defence in the event of a cyberattack without compromising the nation’s

environmental goals. During any attack, the electric grid would be targeted,

damaged, and might even be completely paralyzed. For thse reasons alone, 

deploying diesel engines are vitalto be able to transport goods and commodities,

troops and materials.

The government has announced plans to electrify the entire railway system in the

next three to five years. Policymakers and academicians disagree whether this is

a wise decision, given the hefty cost, the increase in air pollution, and the

availability of fuel efficient, clean burning diesel technology that can be deployed

for a small fraction of the cost of electricification. One thing, however is certain:

not having a fleet of modernized diesel-electric locomotives to operate in the

event of a cyberattack from a hostile foreign government would be very

detrimental to India’s national security.

Working off the grid

Technological advances in diesel engines in recent years have changed the

equation about which type of locomotives to deploy. The new generation of

diesel-fuelled locos are as fuel efficient, and in some ways, more efficient, than

their electric counterparts. Electric locomotives have been pushed in India as a

solution to the country’s chronic air pollution problem, but that is not the case.

When the pollution created by burning coal in thermal power plants to produce

the electricity needed to electrify the rail lines is factored in, electric locomotives

produce more pollution than diesel locomotives that have been upgraded to the

latest emissions controls.

But in the present context, it is important to note diesel locomotives operate off

the grid and cannot be subjected to cyberattacks. A diesel powered locomotive

is, in fact, an electric locomotive carrying its own powerhouse. Our energy policy

should ideally leverage proven technology, minimize the cost, maximize benefits

to the environment and prioritize the national security.

Such advantages often get obscured in policy debates. But here’s the thing: diesel

is efficient, economical, leaves a small carbon footprint and is an unassailable

asset in a situation where the nation’s electric power supply has become highly

vulnerable due to a cyberattack.