Fighting Invisible Enemies: Securing critical public IT Infrastructure

By: Sanjai Gangadharan, Regional Director, SAARC, A10 Networks

Last year, as the winter season approached its peak in Ukraine, a well-planned cyber-attack brought down power grids in Western Ukraine, leaving more than 230,000 people in the dark. The attack also crippled the backup power in two of the three distribution centers, which meant the power operators were themselves in the dark. Simultaneously, in a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, the call centers were flooded with fake calls from different sources that prevented legitimate callers from getting through to report outages in their areas. This multi-vector DDoS attack was yet another illustration of how vital it is to safeguard your network, users and data from malicious intent.

This is just one recent example; many such battles are raging on different fronts in the digital world. These battles may be bloodless, but they take their toll in the form of loss of data, assets, currency, privacy, productivity, revenue and reputation, at the very least. The term “security breach” does not refer to just physical borders anymore. An entire tech industry has been built on protecting digital assets of organizations within their networks, data centers, computers, mobile devices, etc, to keep business applications and network from being taken offline and data being stolen.

India is well on its way to becoming a digital country. With more than a billion mobile subscribers, the second largest market for smart phones globally, the best way of reaching all the citizens in a country as large and diverse as ours, is via the digital medium. The government’s Digital India programme has been gathering momentum and aims to deliver citizen and civic services to every part of the country. It is a Herculean project, one that requires extensive and reliable broadband connectivity to every corner of the country, as well as a robust IT infrastructure that provides the other foundational pillars that accelerates and optimize content delivery to increase application performance. And an extremely important part of this endeavor, is to secure all these elements of the Digital India platform to protect them from emerging threats and cyber-attacks. It is clear that breech of security is not just going to affect the nation’s infrastructure, but also its citizen’s personal information.

The motives for cyber-attacks vary, but every organization — private, or government — must assume that they could be a victim and plan their defenses accordingly. A 2014 report revealed the alarming frequency of attacks on government systems and agencies, gaps in awareness and response and minimal disclosure. Today, close to 70% of the inbound and outbound internet traffic is encrypted. As a result, attackers are increasingly turning to encryption to bypass controls and to evade detection. With more and more applications supporting SSL, SSL encryption represents not just a chink in enterprises’ proverbial armor, but an enormous crater that malicious attackers can exploit. While inspecting SSL traffic has become a necessary precaution, it can often affect the performance of the network that they are monitoring.

According to an NSS Labs report, an average performance degradation of 81% was recorded when leading firewalls decrypt traffic. Consequently, an alarming number of organizations are disabling advanced security features to avoid significant network performance degradation6. To illustrate, imagine barricades set up on a high-traffic roadway — traffic is forced to slow down to allow the police a chance to inspect inside the vehicle for suspicious activity. The trade-off between security and network performance may not be acceptable, especially for mission critical systems, like those being planned under Digital India umbrella.

For instance, the e-governance part of the program aims to electronically consolidate records from the various government domains like land, agriculture, health, education, passports, police, courts, treasuries, etc. This adds up to a huge amount of data which needs to be easily and quickly accessible for daily running of civic bodies, but only to authorized personnel — it must be kept inaccessible otherwise. There is also a plan to make personal records available to citizens in electronic form, stored in individual digital lockers. The responsibility of securing all this confidential and critical data falls on the government.

Therefore, it is vital that the government picks the right technology to safeguard the critical infrastructure that will form the core of their digital programme. There are many different security solutions available from different vendors, but these often increase costs while delivering low levels of effectiveness. The good news is that some of the leading players in enterprise security are providing converged solutions in the form of an appliance that sits at critical entry points of the network by consolidating security and application networking, offering the high performance and versatility the government needs to safeguard their applications, users and infrastructure.

The security for systems that handle large amounts of sensitive data has to be built in from the ground up. In other words, it is a part of the foundation of the structure, not something that is applied after the structure is built (like paint!). It must be built into the early design specifications as one of the foundational pillars, and the right combination of solutions makes all the difference in building a secure digital platform that is high performing and impenetrable.

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