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'Ethical Hacker' Saket Modi Calls for Stronger Cyber Security Discussions

Posted by Kovey Coles at Aug 05, 2013 01:10 PM |
Twenty-two year old Saket Modi is the CEO and co-founder of Lucideus, a leading cyber security company in India which claims to have worked with 4 out of 5 top global e-commerce companies, 4 out of 10 top IT companies in the world, and 3 out of 5 top banks of the Asia Pacific.

This research was undertaken as part of the 'SAFEGUARDS' project that CIS is undertaking with Privacy International and IDRC

At the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) conference on July 13, titled “ACT – Achieving Cyber-Security Together,” Modi as the youngest speaker on the agenda delivered an impromptu talk which lambasted the weaknesses of modern cyber security discussions, enlightened the audience on modern capabilities and challenges of leading cyber security groups, and ultimately received a standing ovation from the crowd. As a later speaker commented, Modi’s controversial opinions and practitioner insight had "set the auditorium ablaze for the remainder of the evening". Since then the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) has had the pleasure of interviewing Saket Modi over Skype.

It is quite easy to find accounts of Saket Modi's introduction into hacking just by typing his name in the search engine. Faced with the pressure of failing, a teenage Saket discovered how to hack into his high school Chemistry teacher’s test and answer database. After successfully obtaining the answers, and revealing his wrong doings to his teacher, the young man grew intrigued by the possibilities of hacking. "I thought, if I could do this in a couple hours, four hours, then what might I be able to do in four days, four weeks, four months?"

Nowadays, Modi describes himself and his Lucideus team as "ethical hackers", a term recently espoused by hacker groups in the public eye. As opposed to "hacktivists", who utilize hacking methods (including attacks) to achieve or bring awareness to political issues, ethical hackers claim to exclusively use their computer skills to support defenses. At first, incorporation of ethics into a for-profit organization’s game plan may seem confusing, as it leaves room for key questions, like how does one determine which clients constitute ethical business? When asked, however, Modi clarifies by explaining how the ethics are not manifest in the entities Lucideus supports, but instead inherent in the choice of building defensive networks as opposed to using their skills for attack or debilitation. Nevertheless, considerations remain as to whether supporting the cyber security of some entities can lead to the insecurity of others, for example, strengthening the agencies which work in covert cyber espionage. On this point, Modi seems more ambivalent, saying "it depends on a case by case basis". But he still believes cyber security is a right that should be enjoyed by all, "entitled to [you] the moment you set foot on the internet".

As an experienced professional in the field who often gives input on major cyber policy decisions, Modi emphasizes the necessity of youth engagement in cyber security practice and policy. He calls his age bracket the “web generation,” those who have “grown with technology.” According to Modi, no one over 50 or 60 years of age can properly meet the current challenges of the cyber security realm. It is "a sad thing" that those older leaders carry the most power in policy making, and that they often have problems with both understanding and acceptability of modern technological capabilities. For the public, businesses, and also government, there are misconceptions about the importance of cyber security and the extent of modern cyber threats, threats which Modi and his company claim to combat regularly. "About 90 per cent of the crimes that take place in cyber space are because of lack of knowledge, rather than the expertise of the hacker,” he explains. Modi mentions a few basic misconceptions, as simple as, "if I have an anti-virus, my system is secured" or "if you have HTTPS certificate and SSL connection, your system is secured". “These are like wearing an elbow guard while playing cricket,” Modi tells. “If the ball comes at the elbow then you are protected, but what about the rest of the body?”

This highlights another problem evident in India’s current cyber security scene, the problem of lacking “quality institutes to produce good cyber security experts.” For example, Modi takes offence at there not being “a single institute which is providing cyber security at the undergraduate level [in India].” He alludes to the recently unveiled National Cyber Security Policy, specifically the call for five lakh cyber security experts in upcoming years. He calls this “a big figure,” but agrees that there needs to be a lot more awareness throughout the nation. “You really have to change a lot of things,” he says, “in order to get the right things in the right place here in India.”

When considering citizen privacy in relation to cyber security, and the relationship between the two (be it direct or inverse), Saket Modi says the important factor is the governing body, because the issue ultimately resolves to trust. Citizens must trust the “right people with the right qualifications” to store and protect their sensitive data, and to respect privacy. Modi is no novice to the importance of personal data protection, and his company works with a plethora of extremely sensitive information relating to both their clients and their clients’ clients data, so it operates with due care lest it create a “wikileaks part two.”

On internationalization and cyber security, he views the connection between the two as natural, intrinsic. “Cyberspace has added a new dimension to humanity,” says Modi, and tells how former constructs of physical constraints and linear bounds no longer apply. International cooperation is especially pertinent, according to Modi, because the greatest challenge for catching today’s criminal hackers is their international anonymity, “the ability to jump from one country to the other in a matter of milliseconds.”

With the extent of the challenges facing cyber defense specialists, and with the somewhat disorderly current state of Indian cyber security, it is curious to see that Saket Modi has devoted himself to the "ethical" side of hacking. Why hasn’t he or the rest of the Lucideus team resorted to offensive hacking, since Modi claims the majority of cyber attacks of the world who are committed by people also fall between the ages of 15 and 24? Apparently, the answer is simple. “We believe in the need for ethical hacking,” he defends. “We believe in the purpose of making the internet safer.”