The setting up of the Defence Cyber Organisation, announced in Parliament last week, reflects the Defence Ministry's recognition of the need to be battle-ready for the next frontier of warfare: cyberspace. Proof of the harm that an online-borne invasion can cause was provided recently by the theft of the personal details of 850 national servicemen and staff at Mindef. Fortunately, the attack did not compromise official secrets on this occasion. But that could well be the aim of unfriendly states or rogue groups intent on breaching the Government's firewalls. What saved the day was the delinking of classified systems from Internet computers, which prevented sensitive information from being accessed through the Web.
However, it is a matter of time before predators strike again, given the growing technological sophistication and insistent political agenda of state-driven hacking. The threat of institutionalised and sustained virtual attacks means that Singapore needs to shore up its cyber borders speedily. A single organisation that is tasked with the responsibility of fending off cyber attacks can better equip itself with technological and intelligence resources to be on top of the game. The new command will have four formations, each with different roles. It will be empowered by being at the highest level of the organisational hierarchy, as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen put it. Preparing for digital warfare deserves no less.
However, cyber vigilance demands more than a high degree of institutional investment and discipline. Cyber defenders, who are required to bolster the round-the-clock protection of networks, cannot be drawn exclusively from the new organisation. Instead, there is merit in tapping national servicemen, both full-time and operationally ready, to play a part. Not all of them would possess the technological acumen necessary to fulfil that role, but those who do must step up to their jobs. People with a background in information technology, and with the skills to defang the multi-layered deceits of the digital world, ought to support the national effort by offering their services. Their work will be no less crucial than that of combat units.
Network security being as strong as the weakest link, all users must assume they are prey and instinctively practise cyber safety procedures each and every time they plug into a shared system. Background software that constantly inspects traffic and blocks out high-risk intrusions should not lull a user into letting down his or her guard. Viruses, spyware and malware are getting more devious all the time. That means every potential download or incoming e-mail from even a seemingly innocuous source is suspect. Ordinary users, and not just soldiers, must also view the ubiquitous computer screen as a minefield of hidden dangers. The best defence one can have against this is a corps of questioning minds.