Indian IT Giants Eyeing Pakistan's Vulnerabilities
18 July, 2005
By Momin Iftikhar
The twelve days long disruption in SEA-ME@WE-3, the only cable providing international IT connectivity to, Pakistan, has comprehensively exposed the dangers of operating without a crucial backup which can lead to a virtual paralysis in an emergency. It has also bared the threat emanating from India's IT giants to Pakistanís commercial as well as security related concerns. There are indicators galore that Indian IT Industry is sharpening its claws to delve into Pakistan's vulnerabilities as and when the situation lends itself for manipulation. Unless watchdog agencies and PTCL workout a joint strategy to ward off the threat there are all the possibilities that Pakistan mould end up a loser in this high stake contest.
Pakistan's primer connection to outside world is dependent on the 38,000 KM long SEA-ME-WE-3 trunk cable which has 9 landing points. Despite the fact that Pakistan is a member of the consortium financing the cable, it lacks the facility of the landing point and is connected to the cable through a 60 KM long 'spur' in the absence of a back up if the connecting spur is damaged, Pakistan' connectivity with the outside world comes to an end. It is reassuring, however, to note that this bothersome contingency is being taken care of through expected completion of SEA-ME-WE-4 submarine cable in the third quarter of 2005. Pakistan is pant of the consortium building this 20,000 KM long cable spawning Singapore to France via Middle East, carrying telephone, internet and various broadband data streams. According to experts the advantage of the backup arrangements can be further maximized by creating alternatives of both the cables by linking the spurs emanating from. SEA-ME-WE-3 & 4 cables. This will ensure that in case
one of the spur got disrupted, the volume of traffic remained undiminished and continued to flow.
In the given scenario marked b the paucity of interact submarine cable assets, expanding Pakistanís international connectivity by hooking onto the existing network of the neighbouring countries - China, Iran, UAE and India, emerges as a strong alternative possibility. Available options include linking up through Gawadar to Fujairh (UAE), Gilgit to Sinkiang (China), Quetta to Zahidan (Iran) and the dicey and double edged connection to India through Wagah. Not that such arrangement come without internet risks and hidden costs. The country through which the internet traffic transits gains access to strategic intelligence through monitoring of the traffic, the country providing the transit can gain revenue by refilling of the traffic at the cost of Pakistan and lastly its own assets (SEA-ME-WE-3 &.4 in case of Pakistan) get bypassed and remain under utilized. In this context it is pertinent to note that even now only 3,5% of the bandwidth available on SEA-ME-WE-3 has been utilized despite the fact that it is the only bandwidth for international connectivity. According to experts a terrestrial connection with India will expose our IT related interests to strong possibilities of wanton Indian exploitation.
Before one takes a stock of the IT threat emanating from India, a brief survey of her internet/telecom assets would be in order to ascertain the extent of Indian ascendance in the IT related fields. India has at her command an array of ten cables, some of these indigenously owned. The international cables shared by India include SEA-ME-WE-2, 3 & 4, SAFE, Gulf Cable and i2i. The urgency of Indian compulsions to dominate the field is evident from the fact half a dozen of international cables have been acquired within the span of last three years alone. The Reliance Group of India has acquired FLAG Cable connecting Europe, Asia, and Far East Countries and is now most aggressively manipulating to get a major share of Pakistanís IT related business. To sweeten the bait it has offered to provide a landing point of this cable at Karachi, free of cost. Even at present Reliance is using 3* 155 Mbps connectivity from SEA-ME-3 to provide internet services in Pakistan. Indiaís state owned company, VSNL has signed an agreement with the Hong Kong based company to acquire Asia Netcom Bandwidth to lease its cable system. The network offers 80 GB band width and links India to Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. VSNL has also acquired Tyco Global Network (TGN) which provides India with the control of cable connecting three continents. It has a capacity of 460 gbps with a potential to be upgraded to 5.12 tbps. Tata Indicom, another Business Conglomerate, laid the fist 100% Indian owned cable from India to Singapore in November 2004 to provide 5.12 terabit capacity to India.
Such outstanding assets having a combination of state and entrepreneurial ownership are aggressively seeking ways and means to exploit Pakistanís IT system vulnerabilities and weaknesses, India design centers at destroying the credibility of the Pakistanís cable network to attract routing of cable traffic meant for Pakistan to its own network and also to create conditions whereby Pakistan is forced or lured into gaining an overland cable connect through Indian owned networks. In this context it is instructive to note that the fault that crippled the network operation in Pakistan occurred at the spur linking SEA-ME-WE-3 Cable trunk to mainland, affecting only Pakistan. According to experts the chances of this disruption occurring through natural causes remains highly unlikely while all indicators point to the possibility of sabotage by the vested quarters to bring the fragility of Pakistanís cable network into the limelight. Experts also point out to the 2003 hacking attacks over Pakistanís IT infrastructure in whose aftermath Reliance Group of India was able to divert a large chunk of IT related traffic from Pakistanís operated infrastructure to its own along with substantial revenue windfall. To many experts the breakdown might be an Indian engineered ploy to discredit PTCL, disillusion the foreign vendors flocking into Pakistan to take advantage of deregulation of communication policies, divert bulk of traffic to Indian cable network and force Pakistan to go for the easiest but dicey option to linkup with overland cable network of India.
The Government of Pakistan (GoP) has recently formulated the policy governing the terrestrial cable link with neighbouring countries. It rightly stipulates that such cable connection will be used for bilateral traffic only and will carry voice and no data traffic. However given the cut throat tactics of Indian entrepreneurs, the enforcement of this policy calls for instituting ironclad guarantees in the bilateral agreements to avert any problems from emerging later on. Unless all loopholes for exploitation are painstakingly and meticulously blocked, once the bandwidth are sold, it would be difficult to ensure that Pakistanís security related strategic and commercial interest are not compromised through wanton exploitation by vested quarters.
In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, IT has emerged as a powerful tool for conducting multifarious activities which have a bearing not only on day to day functioning but provides the sustenance for conducting vital and strategically important state functions. The recent wake call provided by the disruption of the SEA-ME-WE-3 cable has provided us a good opportunity to talk a stock of the situation and set our bearings to correct. While thinking out options to maximize our national IT potential we need to be cognizant of the threat posed by Indiaís mammoth growth in this vital field. This is era of geo-economics yet no country can close its eyes to security dimensions of this double weapon. While considering the easiest option of seeking a land connect with India we need to ensure that our strategic interests are fire walled from the threat of an IT assault, which is our own making. Whatever be the perceived windfall of revenues, it doesnít make a case for placing our jugular at the mercy of others.