Government
Under cyber-attacks
It gets less than a united backing from Singaporeans, but few people actually support this form of action. By Seah Chiang Nee
Nov 9, 2013

(Synopsis: Anonymous hackers have started attacking government websites, leaving Singaporeans with a sense of foreboding about the future.)

AN aura of uncertainty, even fear, has crept into this intelligent island where the computer widely affects every home, office and school.

Since an anonymous network of hackers threatened war on the government and its infrastructure, many official websites – including the Prime Minister’s Office – became inaccessible for a long period.

Others included the police force and internal security department and ministries like finance, home affairs and national development as well as Parliament and the Cabinet.

Many citizens are not sure whether there had been a cyber-attack or, as officially explained, the outage was due to a planned maintenance that hit “routing and hardware”.

“At no point were these websites the target of cyber-attacks,” insisted the authorities.

But an e-mail purportedly from “The Messiah”, an alleged hacker who is part of an international network, said several members had worked together to put them down.

The declaration of war with a pledge to hit at official infrastructure last Saturday has placed Singaporeans with a sense of foreboding about what is to come.

Singapore – its economy and education system – has been heavily dependent on the Internet for two decades.

After four days of silence, a defiant Prime Minister vowed to track down the anonymous hackers and bring them to justice.

Lee Hsien Loong told reporters: “Our IT (information technology) network, the Internet, our communications have become an essential part of our business and our lives now.

“...When somebody threatens to do harm to it ... we will spare no effort to try and track down the culprits and if we can find him, we will bring him to justice and he will be dealt with severely.”

The response is not surprising. Few people had really expected the authorities to give in.

A day later, the PM Office website was mockingly hacked by Anonymous, saying “It’s great to be Singaporean today”.

Singapore may be entering a new era of IT threats where unidentified foreign predators – for good or bad reasons – can wreak chaos to their lives.

“These may be the good guys. What if they were followed by the really bad ones with destructive ideas?” asked a political analyst.

Since the harm of computer warfare is unimaginable, most people tend to oppose its use to achieve social and human rights, the declared aim of the anonymous group.

Even within the Internet community, which is traditionally anti-government, the reaction has been mixed.

“I love these guys for fighting on our behalf but am afraid they may actually inflict harm on Singapore,” a netizen said. “We will have to fight the government our way, through elections.”

Therein lies the government’s dilemma. It is facing a dangerous new threat with some younger Singaporeans less than supportive of it.

The anonymous group is not without problems, too. It can only win if it gets the Singapore public on its side.

This is unlikely to happen if its hacking activities are stepped up to a level where people’s welfare is harmed.

This could swing Singaporeans behind the government and turn against them – which is not what they want.

Observers notice that of all the closures, the Central Provident Fund website was unaffected.

The trouble began last Saturday when an anonymous hacker wearing a Guy Fawkes mask demanded the Singapore government, over YouTube, to withdraw its recent laws to licence online news.

Economists fear that a prolonged digital war may undermine business confidence and affect the economy, particularly e-commerce here and in the region.

Singaporeans are by nature not aggressive. Some see it as Hobson’s choice, between supporting the anonymous group’s “noble objective” and their own jobs and careers.

The public stayed largely away from the hackers’ call for a general protest on Nov 5. So did most bloggers, although some Facebook users had blacked out their profile pictures as a sign of support.

Since many Singaporeans are not tech-savvy, they tend to worry about the worst of a cyber-war – chaotic roads and airports, missing bank accounts, etc.

The government, however, has insisted the websites were closed for a pre-planned maintenance which was aggravated by “routing and hardware glitches”.

The episode showed the government was apparently unprepared to meet a major hacking threat.

It signifies that defence of Singapore now goes beyond the need for national service and a people’s army, missiles and jet-fighters.

Recently, the government announced a new S$130mil (RM332mil) budget to be spent in the next five years for research in countering cyber-warfare.

The hacking began last December, when the websites of the government People’s Association and 16 related bodies were hacked and closed.

A number of assaults followed, including the town council of PM Lee’s constituency.

The hackers putting pressure on the People’s Action Party (PAP) government will likely see some long-term impact.

The ever presence of a global group of high-powered hackers, and their threat, will likely make the policy-makers a lot more cautious in the future.


(Updated version of article published in The Star on Dec 15, 2012)

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