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BIMSTEC: An Unprecedented Opportunity For Collaboration And Cooperation In Cyberspace – Analysis

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By Brig. Ashish Chhibba*

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional grouping of seven countries i.e. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand that lie in the littoral and adjacent regions of the Bay of Bengal. Recently, the member countries got together in New Delhi to hold the first conference on cyber security cooperation from 05 to 07 December 2018.

The BIMSTEC region has a population of around 1.5 billion people, which constitutes nearly 22 per cent of the global population., The member states have a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US $ 2.7 trillion. The region is witnessing an exponential growth in internet usage and mobile telephony with social media, especially Facebook, having its largest user base from the region. It is therefore crucial that BIMSTEC takes an active part in various internet governance forums, promulgates best practices and cyber norms and works to ensure speedy build-up of cyber capacity and capability, transparent and quick information sharing, and coordinate their responses in fighting cyber-crime in the rapidly evolving cyber ecosystem of the region.

BIMSTEC Regional Cyberspace Ecosystem

As per Digital in 2018 yearbook, out of the total global population of 7.593 Billion (data as of January 2018), roughly 4.021 Billion (approximately 53 per cent of global population with an annual growth rate of 7 per cent) have access to internet with 3.196 Billion (42% of global population with an annual growth rate of 13%) being active social media users. There are 5.135 billion (68% of global population with an annual growth rate of 4%) unique mobile phone users in the world, a majority of them having the basic mobile handset without internet connectivity with an increasing large number migrating to smart phones with 3G and 4G mobile internet connectivity. Of these, the BIMSTEC countries account for nearly one fourth of the global internet population which is likely to grow in the near future. This is in spite of the fact that South Asia has a low internet penetration of 36 % (above only central and eastern Africa) against a global average of 53%.

The BIMSTEC countries also have the largest share of social media users in the world. Nearly 23% of active social media users (735 Million) are from the region. India has the second highest growth rate of social media users (31%) with the highest number of Facebook users (250,000,000). Bangkok and Dhaka respectively are the top two cities with the largest number of active Facebook users. These figures notwithstanding, social media penetration in South Asia still stands at 20% in against a global average of 42%.

The BIMSTEC region is the largest user of mobile phones in the worldwith 51% of unique mobile phone users (2.630 Billion). India, Nepal and Bhutan on an average generate 3.9 GB of monthly mobile data per smart phone against a global average of 2.9 GB. This is in contrast to the fact that the mobile internet speed in these countries is much below the global average of 21.3 MBPS.

Barring Thailand, which has a robust e-commerce penetration of 62%, the remaining countries of BIMSTEC region have a lower e-commerce penetration but, India with penetration of 26% is the fastest growing e-commerce market in the world. As the internet penetration increases with faster mobile data rates and a greater number of people migrate from basic mobile phones to smartphones, the e-commerce sector is bound to increase drastically and offers enormous opportunities for business and economy.

India has the second highest digital optimism in the world with 79% of the population believing that new technology offers more opportunity than risks. The majority of population living in the region have tremendous faith in internet and digital technology and believe that it is the engine for good governance, poverty alleviation, reducing corruption and providing prosperity to all.

However, even as the BIMSTEC region is at the cusp of a major internet and mobile telephony transformation, its poor literacy rates make the population susceptible to cyber-crime, data thefts, identity frauds and propagation of rumours and fake news – against a global average of female (80%) and male (88%) literacy rate, South Asia has a corresponding literacy rate of 61% (female) and 78%(male).  

Cyber Security and Future Trajectory of Cyber-Crime in the BIMSTEC Region

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) publishes a yearly Global Cyber Security Index as a measure of the commitment of countries to cyber security.  The Global Cyber Security Index of 2017 featured 134 countries with Bangladesh securing 53, Bhutan 109, India 23, Myanmar 99, Nepal 93, Sri Lanka 71 and Thailand 22 rank. It is evident that the overall cyber security posture of the region is poor and much needs to be done towards building a safer cyber environment which assumes even greater importance as the region is moving towards greater internet and mobile penetration.

The estimated global cyber-crime revenue in 2018 is around US $ 1.5 Trillion.  Of this, illegal online market (U $ 860 Billion), trade secret & online theft (US $500 billion) and data trading (US $ 160 Billion) will be the top earners with negligible revenue being roped in by crime-ware (US$1.6 Billion) and ransomware (US$1 Billion). The above is a good indicator of the future global trajectory of cyber-crime.

As per a white paper “2018 Current State of Cyber Crime”, cyber crime has shifted from web based attacks to mobile phone based attacks as more and more people migrate to smart phones for carrying out banking, e-commerce and other financial transactions. The BIMSTEC region with the largest share of mobile phone users in the world is particularly susceptible to these crimes and frauds primarily due to low cyber security posture coupled with large population of digital illiterates entering the e-commerce and digital banking sector for the first time.

It has also been brought out that due to the massive data breaches in the last two years, there is a growing market of illegal sale of non-financial personal credentials with a 70% growth in the visible fraud activity on social media platforms. Again, the region is likely to witness unauthorised harvesting of private digital data being the largest users of social media platforms.

Conclusion

The BIMSTEC region is witnessing an explosive growth in cyber space infrastructure coupled with a growing number of first-time users of cyber space and e-commerce. In order to fully exploit the digital dividend, it is imperative that the member countries collaborate and cooperate to ensure rapid cyber capacity and capability building, exchange of skilled manpower, development of a regional cyber eco system and joint representation at international internet and mobile telephony governance councils and bodies. Secondly, mass cyber education drives need to be undertaken to educate and protect the interests of the population especially those who will be joining the internet and undertaking e-commerce activities for the first time. Thirdly, the ICT companies need to recognise the immense potential of the BIMSTEC region and participate whole heartedly in nation building and improving the national security environment as a whole. And lastly, intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the BIMSTEC region need to seamlessly cooperate with each other for intelligence sharing, combating crime and maintaining a highly resilient and safe cyber environment.   

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

*About the author: Brig. Ashish Chhibbar is Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Source: This article was published by IDSA


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IDSA

IDSA

The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. IDSA has been consistently ranked over the last few years as one of the top think tanks in Asia.

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