Most countries have the supreme belief that they have strong lines of defense against threats from within and from the outside. Oftentimes, it is a sophisticated military. A forbidding geography (think Afghanistan) that intruders would find terrifying is a line of defense for some of the poor and underdeveloped regions of the world.
But with the face of terror steadily shifting from rampaging Visigoths and conquering Huns to cyber criminals that could sow chaos on the world with their computer keys, most discussions about a line of defense now revolves around the firewalls countries have built to counter cyber attacks on their public and private institutions. What kind firewalls do you have?
Most countries attest to their readiness to counter cyber attacks. Silicon Valley is being enlisted to be a loyal soldier in the fight against Internet-enabled terrorism. Many countries devote real money and talent to propping up their cyber security infrastructure.
I am not so sure we can say the same thing about our dear PH given the recent grim developments that showed how vulnerable the country and its institutions are from assaults that are technology-abetted. The items in the current news cycle sadly say so.
The most unsettling piece of news was the hacking of the website of the Commission on Elections (Comelec). Hackers apparently broke no sweat as they inserted themselves into the Comelec system. They defaced the website and issued threats, some vague call about ensuring the integrity of the upcoming May general elections.
What information was obtained? What damage was done to the Comelec tech infrastructure ? Had they (the hackers) tweaked the system for some evil intent, such as laying the groundwork for cheating and fraud? The Comelec, of course, had downplayed the hacking and said that the hacking has not compromised the sensitive components of the tech infrastructure. But who knows?
Right now, and this is not even debatable, the Comelec is the country’s most important public institution. It is now overseeing a general election that will determine the political leadership of the country, from the president down to the last councilor of a 6th class town. The subversion of its technology means the subversion of the electoral process. A subversion of the people’s choices. The possible assumption to power of fraudulent leaders. As simple as that.
Yet, the ease by which hackers could break into their system and do what they wanted to do is suggestive of the complete breakdown of the firewall that was supposed to protect that important technology system from intruders. A firewall, that in theory, was supposed to be impregnable, given the importance of the data that are stored in the Comelec system.
The hacking of the Comelec system came at the most unfortunate context – incessant claims that the poll body’s systems are flawed and vulnerable. Now, the naysayers can claim that the breach represented real and additional proof that the Comelec tech system has been corrupted beyond repair. The agenda of the naysayers is a return to manual voting, which is definitely worse than a corrupted automated voting.
The hacking of the Comelec system seamlessly segues into another terrible form of technology failure, hackers that preyed on the Bangladesh Bank system.
The corruption of a vulnerable system, like the system of the Bangladesh Bank which was robbed by hackers of $81 million, was least expected to spill over into the Philippine shores. But it did. After the $81 million was cleared by the New York Fed, it was moved into waiting accounts at the RCBC, then laundered at the casinos.
The seamless flow of the laundered money exposed another dark side, a soft underbelly, of Philippine institutions. Bankers are pliable, front accounts for stolen money can be set up with ease and the casinos are more than willing to wash the stink off dirty money. Hackers with a knowledge of what keys to press can unleash a money flow from Bangladesh to New York to casino accounts – via the PH banking system. Without us (the PH and its collection of institutions that are supposed to safeguard the country’s interests and security) putting a puny attempt to counter the money laundering.
Those ghastly things are features of a Banana Republic. Ghastly things that the usual ghouls do by exploiting the inherent weaknesses of systems and institutions of countries with sub-par technologies. We were supposed to have passed that sorry stage. Our leaders have claimed that we have moved up into the world. The truth is we have not.
Clearly, there was failure of leadership. Our leaders have been so preoccupied with posting GDP growth, securing credit upgrades and preaching about morality that other important matters, such as protecting the country ‘s vulnerable institutions, have been neglected. The DOST has been clueless on firewalls and cyber protection. I don’t think its leaders are even capable of tracking the big movements in Internet security and how cyber criminals have been adopting to these changes to go around the firewalls. Instead of a Wozniak clone, a lawyer heads the DOST.
On cyber assaults, we are vulnerable, defenseless and totally clueless on the magnitude of our shortcomings. A familiar and long-running PH story.