TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan is planning an educational reform to strengthen its defences against terrorists' online crimes.
The move comes as the country also introduces stiffer penalties for spreading extremism on the internet. Authorities are trying to stem the exodus of hundreds of radicalised citizens to Syrian and Iraqi battlefields since 2011.
This academic year, 480 undergraduates nationwide began training as future IT security specialists. Classes for them began September 4.
Extremists might hack official sites to post extremist messages or simply use the internet to post their propaganda or recruiting pitches.
"Extremist organisations, such as ISIL [the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant'], concentrate much of their attention on cyber-warfare," Oleg Frankenberg of Tashkent, who works at an IT security firm, told Caravanserai. "Groups that claim responsibility for hacking are not always the actual culprits."
Hackers have targeted Central Asia before, he said.
"One example was in May 2015, when ISIL hackers breached the Kyrgyz Health Ministry website," he said. "Although hackers still haven't carried out a major attack on Uzbekistan, the threat is real."
Teaming up against cyber-extremism
Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan's security agencies recently teamed up to fight extremism online. They carried out a joint study, published last September 15, that showed more than 57,000 websites in Central Asia existed to facilitate terrorist recruitment.
The countries co-operated in shutting down 50,000 of those sites.
"Last year, 493 .uz domain sites were subjected to hacker attacks," Laziz Buranov, a department chief in the country's Information Security Centre (TsOIB), told Caravanserai. "They were hacked for various reasons. In the majority of cases, the site owners themselves were at fault -- they ... used infected and vulnerable software."
Uzbekistan has 318 gov.uz websites as of now. Nobody has ever hacked one of them.
"It's possible that extremists have tried, but we know nothing since they didn't succeed," Frankenberg said. "A major hacking attack did breach ... the National Television and Radio Co. site [not a gov.uz site] in 2013."
Educating a cadre of IT defenders
An Uzbekistani university is preparing students to confront the threat to IT security.
"In accordance with a decision that the president of Uzbekistan signed May 26, Tashkent University of Information Technologies [TUIT] and its branch campuses in Urgench, Karshi, Samarkand, Fergana, and Nukus have opened IT security departments," Information Technologies and Communications Development Ministry spokesman Dilshod Khairullayev told Caravanserai. "On September 4, 480 [freshmen] -- 19% of the freshman class -- began study in that field."
The field of study will be divided into "information security" and "cryptography and cryptoanalysis", he said.
TUIT "trained IT security experts in the past but in small numbers and not in a specific department", Khairullayev said. "During the past five years, demand for them has grown in Uzbekistan."
The government is sponsoring contests to encourage youth interest in IT security.
On July 7-9, Tashkent hosted the semi-finals of the Cyber Security Challenge Uzbekistan, the country's first open cyber-security contest.
The contestants "faced each other in ... cryptography and in finding weaknesses in websites, operating systems and software", Khairullayev said. "Ninety-five competitors made it to the final, which will take place in late September."
The three winners will share "a prize pool of 30m UZS [US $10,000]", he added.
Legal reforms to protect cyber-space
Meanwhile, the government is making punishments for extremist misbehaviour on the internet more severe.
"Since the government amended the Criminal Code on April 26, the punishment for developing and displaying online materials that threaten public safety is now five to eight years' imprisonment," Tashkent attorney Utkur Usmanov told Caravanserai.
Previously, the Criminal Code prescribed punishment only for hard-copy materials that threatened public safety.