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The invisible war: Interception, espionage, and the need for enhanced national security

 David Wiseman
David Wiseman  • 6 min read
The invisible war: Interception, espionage, and the need for enhanced national security
No defence is impenetrable, but a proactive and collaborative approach equips us to mitigate risks effectively. Photo: Pexels
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In the dynamic landscape of Singa­pore’s digital age, the need for ro­bust cybersecurity and trusted, secure communications has never been more pronounced. As cyber threats and mo­bile ‘wire-tapping’ tactics evolve alarm­ingly, traditional defence measures fall short, requiring a paradigm shift in our approach.

The rise of cyber-attacks, scams and interception of real-time communications paints a concerning picture. In 2022 alone, cybercrime cases increased by 25.2% in Singapore, signalling a persistent upward trend over the past five years. However, amidst the public discourse on cybercrime and interception, a critical aspect often remains overlooked: Overall national security readiness.

The Singapore Terrorism Threat As­sessment Report 2022, published by the Ministry of Home Affairs, highlights the growing threat of extremism. The report emphasises the transnational nature of terrorism, where developments further afield, such as those in the Middle East and Afghanistan, can reverberate much closer to home.

The New York Times reported on July 3 that Russia is using various digital surveillance tools for snooping on the day-to-day use of phones and websites that are now spilling into international markets. This includes tracking certain activity on encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Signal. This sobering reality under­scores the importance of bolstering cyber defence and how sensitive information is shared.

The unseen threat

Beyond cyber-attacks that go after val­uable stored data, real-time communi­cations — whether phone calls, mes­sages or file sharing — are also being compromised and intercepted at rates never seen before. In a modern world where mobile phones are vital for stay­ing connected and remaining productive, they have unintentionally become on-de­mand gateways for espionage units and cybercriminals to gain unauthorised ac­cess and capture high-value data.

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With advanced attack capabilities such as zero-click vulnerabilities, spyware and communications spoofing, smartphones are being transformed into a listening, capturing and monitoring tool.

Conducting serious business today requires equally serious security coun­termeasures to protect against sophisti­cated threats, particularly when there is a widespread trend of consumer-grade communication tools being used among governments and enterprises to share sensitive information. It puts government leaders, businesses, law enforcement, national security-driven missions and other people involved increasingly at risk.

More than 100,000 private WhatsApp messages were leaked earlier this year involving the former UK health secretary. These digital chats revealed what were meant to be private conversations between several senior politicians and officials.

See also: How Generative AI can be both a security friend and foe to businesses in Singapore

The nature of the ostensibly private messages brought significant reputa­tional damage to those involved and eroded public trust. There are many other well-documented examples of interception from the battlefield to the boardroom, making communications, as much as cybersecurity, a top priority for governments regarding national security.

Singapore faces escalating national security concerns tied to recent suspected spying operations by nation-states. Of note is the influx of high-altitude sur­veillance balloons deployed across the globe, presenting new challenges and risks. These operations could compromise the integrity of vital systems and expose sensitive information.

As a global financial and economic hub, Singapore’s interconnectedness with the global community exposes it to indirect consequences from geo-political conflicts like the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. The ripple effects upon stability, trade, and regional security necessitate heightened vigilance. This is why wa­tertight communications security that guards against adversarial surveillance efforts from traditional ‘bugs’ and brazen spy balloons should be critical to any ‘anti-espionage’ strategy.

Combatting espionage in all its forms

BlackBerry’s latest Threat Intelligence Re­port, released in August, sheds new light on the global cyber threat landscape. Among the top 10 countries experienc­ing cyberattacks, the US has the highest number of attacks stopped. However, the landscape has undergone a significant shift, with six of the top 10 most target­ed nations for cyber attacks in the Asia Pacific and Japan region.

Amidst these growing concerns, Black­Berry’s Threat Research and Intelligence team has been at the forefront of tracking and monitoring the activities of multiple Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups, such as SideWinder. In its latest cam­paign, SideWinder targeted government organisations in Pakistan, employing a sophisticated server-side polymorphism technique.

This technique allows the threat actor to bypass traditional signature-based anti­virus (AV) detection, effectively delivering the next stage payload undetected. Their malicious lure documents and redirec­tion of victims to a legitimate Pakistan Navy homepage exemplify the ingenuity employed by such threat groups.

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The destructive potential of cyber warfare necessitates a unified front against such threats. Governments and financial institutions share a mutual interest in countering cyber threats, presenting an opportunity for collective response and operational collaboration. No single en­tity can combat these challenges alone. Therefore, organisations and governments must take decisive action to strengthen cyber defences.

Collaboration and preparedness

Implementing robust security protocols, including multi-factor authentication, en­cryption, and regular security audits, is paramount. Such measures fortify crit­ical infrastructure and protect sensitive data from espionage attempts.

Additionally, educating employees, citizens, and stakeholders about cyber threats is crucial. Raising awareness about the importance of cybersecurity and fostering individual responsibility are vital steps toward countering cyber communications warfare.

At the same time, as people around the world continue to divulge sensitive information via certain chat apps and social media platforms, information is constantly being mined and stored away for future reference by both cybercriminals and state-sponsored threat groups — especially in this era of hybrid-working and employee ‘workarounds’.

It is critical to encrypt and secure one-to-one and group voice calls, messages, file exchange and group chats across international networks in a low-friction way, making it far easier for staff to comply with approved systems.

As we face these multifaceted chal­lenges in a more digital and disruptive world, let us not forget the fundamental truth: No defence is impenetrable, but a proactive and collaborative approach equips us to mitigate risks effectively. Governments and organisations must seize the opportunity to unite in purpose and action to ensure Singapore remains a trusted international leader in national security readiness.

Through local and international col­laboration and investing in advanced, military-grade technology that ensures information and communications integ­rity, Singapore can better navigate the complex digital landscape and strengthen national defences in a persistently ad­versarial era.

David Wiseman is the VP of Secure Communications at BlackBerry

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