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Bolstering ASEAN Cybersecurity: A Call to Action

Updated: Apr 4

In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the ASEAN region has witnessed an unprecedented surge in internet users and e-commerce activities. While this digital transformation has opened new avenues for growth, it has concurrently provided cybercriminals with a fertile ground for exploitation. The ASEAN Cyber Threat Assessment 2021 reveals a concerning landscape where cyber threats are becoming more sophisticated, posing a significant risk to both public and private sectors.

One of the key challenges is the rise of cybercriminals impersonating government officials and authorities, taking advantage of the pandemic to launch phishing and social engineering attacks. These attacks prey on the goodwill of citizens by offering fake pandemic relief services, medical aid, and personal protective equipment. Such malicious activities not only compromise individual security but also erode trust in essential institutions.

The industrial, oil, manufacturing, and energy sectors, constituting a substantial portion of ASEAN's GDP, are particularly susceptible to cyber-attacks. The shift to remote work has further widened the attack surface, with an increase in the use of remote access tools and trojan ware. Business Compromise Email (BEC) attacks, targeting the very heart of digital transactions, continue to rise as businesses undergo digital transformation.

Despite the efforts of some ASEAN member states, there is a glaring lack of a unified and strategic approach to cybersecurity. Phishing, often considered a low-level crime by law enforcement, remains a significant threat, constituting 42.3% of attacks on ASEAN banks and Facebook. The absence of a regional mechanism for responding to cyber emergencies exacerbates the challenge.

However, it's not all gloom and doom. The ASEAN Cybersecurity Resilience and Information Sharing Platform (CRISP), operationalized by the Central Bank of Malaysia in 2021, stands out as a beacon of progress. Moreover, the ASEAN Singapore Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence has streamlined processes for identifying and responding to cyber incidents through information sharing among Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs).

To further fortify the region's cybersecurity posture, ASEAN must adopt a multidisciplinary approach. Cybersecurity is no longer confined to technical domains; it spans political, economic, defense, and law-enforcement spheres. The progress in institutional frameworks, as highlighted in the ASEAN Cybersecurity Cooperation report, should be acknowledged, and built upon.

The need for a regional emergency-response framework cannot be overstated. Drawing inspiration from successful models in the U.S. and EU, ASEAN should establish a deployable Cyber Rapid Response Team (CRRT) to enhance cyber resilience. This adaptation should be tailored to suit the diverse cybersecurity and IT capabilities among member states, fostering a collaborative and timely response to evolving cyber threats.

As ASEAN continues to embrace emerging technologies such as AI, robots, the cloud, and the Internet of Things, a robust cybersecurity strategy becomes imperative. Small and medium-sized businesses, now crucial players in the digital realm, must be equipped with the knowledge to ensure the security of their digital presence.

In conclusion, the time is ripe for ASEAN to take bold steps in fortifying its cybersecurity defenses. Increased cyber risk management, cyber awareness, incident response capabilities, and the formulation of comprehensive cyber policies are not mere recommendations; they are imperatives for safeguarding the region's digital future.

It is only through collaborative efforts, both within member states and with the support of regional partners, that ASEAN can effectively mitigate the evolving cyber threats and build a resilient digital landscape.

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