In the digital battlespace, websites for the Singapore President and the Singapore Prime Minister's Office (PMO) are, arguably, trophy targets with a high prestige value.
Both were hit by cyber intruders on Friday, with online activist(s) from Anonymous claiming bragging rights for the handiwork. These developments should leave Singaporean security watchers no doubt as regards the credibility of their online statements as Anonymous has flexed its ability to match words with deeds.
Making a point
The Anonymous group had earlier declared "war" on the Singapore Government for its stand on the licensing framework for news websites. This could have led to a heightened state of alert last weekend when a number of government-linked websites were taken offline for what has been officially described as "planned maintenance".
The 5th of November - Guy Fawkes Day - was supposed to be D-Day when Singapore government websites could expect an online assault.
On Wednesday 6 November, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged that no effort would be spared to find hackers who threatened Singapore's online networks. PM Lee made the comments on the sidelines of a counter-terrorism exercise for real world scenarios. His warning to hackers was given strong play by the mainstream media and was carried on Page 1 of The Straits Times.
We did not have long to wait for the other shoe to drop.
On Friday 8 November, Anonymous responded with visits to the Istana and PMO websites.
We would probably never know if the action taken by Anonymous was triggered in response to, or executed in spite of, comments made by PM Lee.
If Anonymous read PM Lee's remarks and then launched the intrusion as a counter strike amid a climate of heightened vigilance by Singapore's cyber sleuths, this says a lot about their spunk, technical prowess and fighting spirit (or audacity, depending on your point of view).
Had Anonymous planned all along to hit the websites anyway, this says even more about the capability of the group to plan, organise and execute a campaign strategy using a pre-determined list of targets which they may have scouted beforehand for weaknesses worth exploiting. This second assumption, in our view, elevates the capability of the group as it indicates their ability to conduct mission planning, probably rehearsals and that the group recognises the concept of a strategic centre of gravity by hitting trophy targets.
Anyone can issue a statement online. But to follow up with direct action so soon after by walking right into the Lion's den to make a point is something else altogether.
What's more, the point made on a PMO webpage was delivered succinctly in Tweet-compliant verbiage. No long, rambling manifesto ala the Unabomber. Just a pointed message that hit the right nerves. From a public relations standpoint, the terse taunt on the PMO website was a PR masterstroke - because it soon went viral.
The red faces that probably ensued make this episode a classic example of asymmetrical action where a non-state actor forces a country to take remedial action that results in a high financial and manpower penalty vis-à-vis the effort needed to stage the intrusions.
For officialdom to reason that the Anonymous action failed to disrupt or degrade online services furnished by government departments misses the opportunity to reassure Singaporeans that they are on top of things.
If you care about Singapore, you may realise such assurance is important as it appears Anonymous now holds the initiative in the online tussle. They hit trophy targets and have done so with impunity.
The InfoComm Development Authority (IDA) Assistant Chief Executive James Kang told the Today newspaper:"Were genuine users being affected? No. The integrity and operations of the websites have not been hijacked."
The IDA's point of view is factually correct. But are we to be reassured by this? The authority could have done more to address why a full scale alert failed to deter, degrade or disrupt outside interference in trophy websites.
Mind you, this was no Pearl Harbor surprise attack launched from out of the blue.
Anonymous went on Youtube to deliver a statement of intent, even helpfully narrowing down its target sets to government websites. So the war warning would have been received in good time (hopefully) and our cyber defences would have come online, fully mobilised in anticipation of trouble.
Instead, we get tech-speak from IDA.
Mr Kang added:"At any one time, there are thousands of vulnerabilities... no organisation will be 100 per cent... If we cannot prevent, then we must detect fast. It's all about minimising the impact and protecting data, services."
The Today article noted that the attacks on the Istana and PMO websites were discovered within 15 minutes and the pages were taken down within an hour.
Readers who are not tech-trained can only take Mr Kang's statement about "thousands of vulnerabilities" at face value.[Note: Ironically, only Anonymous knows the true value of his statement....]
Wither the Cyber Defence Operations Hub
We may not be tech-savvy but from a strategic studies and PR point of view, we can say that fallout from this affair will affect the Ministry of Defence and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) the next time it has to showcase its cyber defences.
Why, you may ask?
Because this episode appears to be fronted entirely by IDA. What role, if any, does MINDEF/SAF Cyber Defence Operations Hub serve in safeguarding Singapore from Anonymous? The grandly named hub was announced by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen on 29 June'13, as part of his interview for SAF Day.
Thus far, not a word has been shared... and one wonders why. Perhaps opsec due to ongoing operations?
If you are charitable, you could form the mental picture of SAF Cyber Defence Operations Hub operatives working tirelessly behind the scenes, burning their weekends as part of an All Of Government task force, tracking down the electron trail which will lead men in black to the door of Mr or Ms Anonymous, ready to make a forced entry and bring the show to a forceful close.
But there's another scenario more worrying to consider. This assumes the Cyber Defence Ops Hub is a benchwarmer with little or no active part in all this unless Cyberpioneer is hacked. This would make an interesting talking point on the level and extent of inter-ministry cooperation when the
The silence will hurt the credibility of the Cyber Defence Ops Hub the next time MINDEF/SAF parades them to the media, because people may ask why they didn't swing into action when most needed by our country.
War has been declared. The attacks have started. What more are you waiting for?