NEW DELHI: It was a phone call that woke TV news anchor Ravish Kumar from deep slumber on the night of December 10. “I almost didn’t pick it up but when I did, I was shocked,’’ Kumar recalls. His email account had been hacked.
Kumar’s account was hacked by a group of people who call themselves the Legion. Just days before they hacked his email account and that of his NDTV colleague Barkha Dutt, the hackers had played havoc with the Congress party’s computer servers taking down nearly 120 email and twitter accounts belonging to party leaders and their vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Others who fell prey to this gang of hackers included absconding billionaire Vijay Mallya.
For those who fell victim to the cyber daredevilry it has been a disturbing week. “I feel so violated. This hacking is nothing but cyber goondagardi (cyber-bullying) and there is nothing I can do about it,” Kumar says.
Dutt described the cyber crime as an assault and violent invasion. “It feels like someone has walked in to my room, rummaged through my clothes, used the bed and left a note. It has just left me angry and creeped out. There is no public interest and it appears to me just an attempt at intimidation,” Dutt says.
“The primary motive of the hackers appears to be, the opposition and journalists critical of the Modi government. It is an attempt to suppress and curb the voice of the Congress party. But the party has fought against oppression and will continue to do so,” Congress communication cell chairman Randeep Surjewala said.
Experts say that targeted attacks in relation to political and media fraternity have occurred before and recall the hacking of websites of the CBI or the Indian embassy in seven countries including Switzerland and Italy. But this hacking has been reminiscent of international incidents where celebrities were targeted. In October this year, the man who hacked email and online accounts to steal nude photos of Hollywood celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence in 2014 was sentenced to 18 months in US federal prison.
But that is unlikely to happen here. Indian law prescribes up to three years of imprisonment and up to Rs 5 lakh in fine but experts confess conviction is low because of lack of electronic evidence and untrained law enforcement officials.
Despite lodging a police complaint all three victims have expressed doubts on the culprits being brought to book at all. “We are deeply disappointed by the IT minister and the home minister and those investigating the crime. It appears to be a shoddy cover-up job rather than an attempt to investigate,” Surjewala says adding that his technical team has confirmed that some part of the attack took place from India though the police has claimed the attacks took place from outside India.
Kumar raises questions on the impunity with which the group has been giving media interviews, “How is it that this group is able to give interviews to media and the police are unable to get a whiff of them?” Dutt adds, “Forget us, but this group claims that they have hacked our banking systems and Parliament. Are we in this Orwellian world of 1984 in 2016?”
Mumbai-based cyber crime lawyer Prashant Mali says the motivation and malice displayed by the Legion was less of “hacktivisim” and more about showing-off. “Hacking has become a fashionable crime like a performer who does dangerous stunts in a circus,” he says. There has been a 300% increase in digital crime since last year according to him.
Cyberlawyer Karnika Sheth agrees that digital crime is on the rise; she has seen 50% increase in such cases in the last seven years. “ In many cases that we see, passwords of bank accounts, pin numbers for ATM cards have been extracted by the criminal with just a phone call from unsuspecting people,” she said stressing on greater cyber-literacy.
Congress has in recent days beefed up its systems. Most emails are protected by a dual password system and an advisory on the security protocol and warning against phishing emails has been issued to all leaders across the country.