In India-Pakistan conflict, there's a long-simmering online war, and some very good hackers on both sides

Key Points
  • A longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan escalated Wednesday when the countries said they carried out airstrikes against one another. 
  • Experts have long warned about a two-decade long cyber rivalry that has also continually escalated into the present day. 
  • India and Pakistan have carried out increasing cyberattacks against one another. 
  • The conflict has also been plagued by the rapid spread of inflammatory rumors on Facebook and messaging services, some of which have escalated into real hands-on fighting. 
An Indian army solider walks past the wreckage of an Indian aircraft after it crashed in Budgam area, outskirts of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Wednesday, Feb.27, 2019.
Mukhtar Khan | AP

A decades-long conflict between India and Pakistan has escalated this week, with India reporting airstrikes against Pakistan.

Both are nuclear powers, and in addition to traditional military tactics, both have been engaged in an online war of words and damaging hacks for more than 20 years.

While countries like Russia, China and North Korea have often dominated the international landscape for their cyberattack capabilities, both India and Pakistan also have formidable government hacking programs, as well as populations with strong technology skills and access to hacking tools.

As far back as 1998, Pakistani hackers successfully penetrated India's Atomic Research Center. Pakistani groups have launched several successful "hacktivist" campaigns throughout the late 1990s and escalating through the 2000s to today. Hacktivism refers to cyberattacks fueled by an ideology, and usually involves taking over a popular government or media website and posting defacing messages on them to embarrass the rival party or spread a message.

Pakistani hackers have defaced Indian websites over disputes involving Kashmir and allegations of torture by the Indian government; Indian hackers have defaced Pakistani websites in retaliation, and began organized defacement campaigns in response to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, according to Zurich's Center for Security Studies.

In one attack in 2010, Pakistan successfully erased data from India's Central Bureau of Investigation. Frequently, both sides have attacked each other in response to incoming attacks, providing a track record in how quickly cyber conflict can escalate between the two countries.

Malware developed by Pakistan and hidden in specially crafted fake blogs and news sites can activate webcams, steal email and take screenshots of victims' computers, according to Proofpoint. India has developed sophisticated Android spying technology, capitalizing on the most popular mobile operating system in the region, according to Crowdstrike.

War of information

Citizens in both countries have also used social networking websites like Facebook and messaging programs like Facebook-owned Whatsapp to exacerbate the conflict. In incidents reported last year, rumors and false news forwarded en masse over Whatsapp in India led to mob-fueled murders in the country.

"While it is rarely discussed publicly, India and Pakistan have been embroiled in continuous offensive cyber and information operations against each other for years," tweeted Alex Stamos, Facebook's former chief security officer. "This might be a situation where that low-level invisible war becomes a destabilizing factor."

As the conflict has escalated, Indian and Pakistani media outlets have been frantically publishing how-to guides for citizens to help them discern fact from fiction on social media and messaging platforms: "Ignore Bulk Messages. If there's a message you've been receiving from multiple channels and contacts, there's a good chance it's a hoax," reads one guide from India's News 18 cable network. "Watch for Forwarded Labels. WhatsApp is clearly aware of the spread of fake news, and now labels forwarded messages."

India-Pakistan situation is 'very worrying': Council on Foreign Relations