Decoding cyber threats

The next big war may be virtual, but the consequences are all too real

Every day, the Defence Cyber Organisation defends Mindef’s networks from hundreds of web exploitation attempts. PHOTO: ISTOCK
Every day, the Defence Cyber Organisation defends Mindef’s networks from hundreds of web exploitation attempts. PHOTO: ISTOCK

The wars of tomorrow will not be entirely fought on the battlefield. 

Rather, they will also be fought in cyberspace. In the virtual battlefields of the 21st century, the keyboard and mouse will be just as important as the rifle and helmet. 

And few know this better than Serena Ong.

As an analyst in Mindef’s Defence Cyber Organisation (DCO), Ms Ong, 31, may be seated behind a desk, but she is the first line of defence against any cyber threats that the Defence Sector – comprising the SAF, Mindef, DSTA, DSO, Defence Industry and Mindef-related organisations – faces. 

Prior to joining Mindef, she worked in the private sector in a cybersecurity company for over a year, before deciding to become a Defence Executive Officer (DXO). 

“Cybersecurity is a fast-growing career field,” she says. “Growing dependence on the Internet is driving the rising tide of cybercrime and cyber threats worldwide.”

Every day, Mindef alone experiences hundreds of web exploitation attempts. These include cross site scripting (XSS) attacks, injection attacks, website defacements, or even intrusion attempts by Advanced Persistent Threats, which are more targeted in nature, and may be perpetrated by cyberwarfare agencies of foreign governments.

This is where the breakwater of DCO comes in. Even in peacetime, analysts like Ms Ong work tirelessly, standing steadfast against increasingly prevalent cyber threats.

“It is not an easy job,” says Ms Ong. “The heavy reliance that companies, government agencies and other organisations have on the Internet has given rise to new opportunities for malicious threat actors to exploit. And with every new technology, comes a new threat.”  

The emergence of Internet of Things-enabled (IoT) devices opens up a whole new realm of vulnerabilities. For instance, in 2016, StarHub experienced a pair of outages that were eventually attributed to cyber attacks launched from customers’ compromised devices. 

More recently, this past July saw the worst cyber attack in Singapore’s history, with the medical records of over 1.5 million Singaporeans compromised.

With the ever-changing nature of cyber threats, it takes highly trained cybersecurity specialists to try and cover every possible angle of attack.

One of them is senior forensics analyst Ben Chan. 

As part of Mindef’s Defence Cyber Organisation (DCO), senior forensics analyst Ben Chan and analyst Serena Ong are at the forefront of the Defence Sector’s cybersecurity defences. PHOTO: Mindef

Much like Ms Ong, Mr Chan, 35, also started out in the private sector as an associate in 2010 — back when public awareness of cybersecurity was relatively low. 

“My friends think that cybersecurity is a job for hackers but, in actual fact, we are law-abiding professionals,” he laughs. 

While his experience in consulting had taken him across industries ranging from banking to manufacturing, his curiosity about working in the public sector was piqued when DCO started recruiting. 

The difference? “For one, my current job requires me to consider more aspects as the work often involves co-operation across Mindef departments and other government agencies,” he says.

The work of a digital forensics analyst also has to be excruciatingly meticulous; just as a forensic scientist would pore over every inch of a crime scene, Mr Chan can likewise ill-afford to miss out a single detail that could lead the investigations to a perpetrator. 

But perhaps the greatest challenge is how quickly and easily vulnerabilities can be exploited. 

“A new product launched today might become a tool used by adversaries for illegal activities tomorrow,” he says.

Mr Chan claims that with a simple search on the Internet, any novice adversary with basic IT skills can cause a cyber incident, even in a secured environment. 

“This is why we have to constantly stay updated about new knowledge and expertise,” he finishes, adding that his position in DCO affords him the privilege of specialised cybersecurity training that he would not have received in the private sector.

But it is not just the thrill of the challenge or the opportunities to upgrade that keeps the men and women of the DCO standing guard day after day.

“Safeguarding the cybersecurity space is important to protect Mindef’s critical infrastructures, and for me to do my part for Singapore’s defence,” he says. 

“Working in the public sector provides opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of others, which to me, is more rewarding than chasing profits,” adds Ms Ong.