Women Cyber Warriors and the Indian Military

08 Mar, 2018    ·   5442

Dr Vijay Sakhuja takes a look back at the role of women professionals at the forefront of innovation in cyber security

The stage is set for the entry of women as ‘cyber warriors’ in the Indian armed forces. The Indian Army chief noted in 2017 that plans were in place to employ women officers "in new cadres such as cyber" since the country faced "major cyber security threat from both state and non-state actors." The initiative is also seen as part of the Shekatkar Committee recommendations that "officers of the army education corps could also be used as cyber warriors as the branch is getting disbanded."

Women officers are not new to the Indian military; they have been part of the Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS) as medical officers. The Indian Military Nursing Services was first set up in 1888 under the British. Other military cadres were opened to women from the early 1990s, and they joined the legal, logistic and education branches. They were later also inducted in the aviation branch. The air force has now trained women officers as fighter pilots and one of them has recently joined a MiG-21 squadron. The navy will soon see women officers on-board warships, and the Indian Army is considering them for combat duties.

Several militaries across the world have employed women in both combat and non-combat military operations. In fact, women played a major role during World War II as non-combatants in hospitals, military ordnance factories, and as air traffic controllers, among others. Their role in signals intelligence, or code-breaking, is noteworthy, but lesser known.

World War II was a war of ‘encrypted signals’ in which the militaries used numerous code and cipher systems to ensure that their radio and telegraph communications were not intercepted, and "code-breaking came into its own as a way to eavesdrop on enemy plans." In the US, nearly 10,000 women were recruited - they constituted over half of the US code-breaking force. Many were college graduates who could not continue their education in mathematics and engineering, and code-breaking was a great opportunity to showcase their talents.

Notable among these was Ann Caracristi, the first female deputy director of the US National Security Agency, who had worked along with her chief, also a woman, to break a code that "enabled the United States military to pinpoint the location of Japanese troops." Likewise, Grace Hopper, who joined the navy during World War II and rose to the rank of a rear admiral, led a team that created the first computer language compiler, which resulted in the programming language, COBOL. In essence, the entry of women into communications and code-breaking had set aside the stereotype of ‘genius as a male trait’ prevalent during the 1940s.

Although programming was considered a secretarial job then - one of the primary reasons why it was more acceptable to recruit women - information technology, computer science, and communications technologies as disciplines of study have since come into their own. The number of women entering this largely male dominated industry is now slowly increasing.

Globally, businesses and government agencies consider gender diversity in their cyber security talent pool as not only beneficial from a public image perspective, but an important driver of innovation, which lies at the heart of any competitive market enterprise. Information technology giants such as Google, IBM, and Facebook are taking the lead to induct women to "fill cyber security positions because the companies realise diverse teams can better identify and neutralise threats." Further, diversity can help address the "masculinisation of computer programming."

Technical skills are central to the overall mission of cyber security and today, nearly 11 per cent of the global cyber security workforce is women. Besides, demand for cyber security professionals has far outpaced supply. This will also result in "women to serve as mentors for new and upcoming cyber security specialists." In the US, the National Cybersecurity Institute has set up the Initiative for Women in Cybersecurity aimed at raising awareness and transforming traditional images of gender, and to open more opportunities in the field for women.

In China, a young new pedigree of cyber warriors who have taken upon themselves to protect national pride against any criticism has emerged. For instance, 'Little Pink' and the '50 cent gang' are aggressive online commentators whose task is to praise the country and to "guard China against even the remotest hint of criticism." Apparently, they are supported by the government.

The Indian armed forces initiative to induct women as cyber warriors is praiseworthy. It helps narrow the gender gap and address the persisting image of the armed forces as an all-male domain. In this context, it is fair to consider women officers of the Indian military cyber security force as pioneers, similar to how women excelled in path-breaking innovations in signals intelligence or code-breaking during World War II.